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Mississippi River

Our Approach


Program Narrative

For over 25 years, McKnight has been committed to protecting and restoring the Mississippi River. The commitment was born of a recognition of the unique and widespread role the river system plays in the economic and social fabric of Minnesota and the Midwest, as well as a concern about the system’s declining health from its tributaries to its sprawling mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The Foundation’s goal is to restore the water quality and resilience of the Mississippi River.

To achieve our goal, we focus on mitigating two major alterations of the river system:

  • Agricultural runoff, most notably nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment; and
  • Engineering of the river, its tributaries and their watersheds, the Midwest landscape, and the Louisiana coast, which has severely altered the basin’s natural hydrology and ability to filter and absorb pollutants.

The program supports activities that contribute to a more resilient landscape and in turn a healthier Mississippi River and Louisiana coast. We seek to influence the range of incentives and disincentives that guide decisions about what, where, and how agricultural land is used and the hydrologic function of the Mississippi River basin, including the restoration of the Louisiana coast. We seek to influence key drivers of decisions and behaviors — such as economic returns, risk, regulations, and culture — to encourage products and practices that reduce runoff and preserve wetlands. As we work to accelerate the adoption of new practices, we also seek to alter established incentives and behaviors that have led to increased runoff and degraded hydrologic function.

We are most interested in efforts that accelerate the emergence and long-term viability of new opportunities, such as market trends that link consumer interest in sustainability with farming practices that reduce impacts on the river, the adoption of soil and water-protecting crops and farming practices, growing interest in soil health, and technologies that assist with a more sustainable use of land. We also recognize the socioeconomic factors that influence land-use decisions and seek to mitigate economic and policy drivers that discourage diversified cropping systems, consolidate livestock operations, and reduce farmers’ incentives to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices.

We primarily focus on the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries that are responsible for most of the agricultural pollution to the river system and have the most severely altered hydrology. We also support a small group of organizations conducting important environmental work in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a few organizations that have the demonstrated capacity, history, and strategic vision to impact basin-wide issues.


Theory of Change

The Mississippi River program's Theory of Change (TOC) centers on influencing the incentives that drive decisions impacting the river. The TOC relies on an internal “engine” in which the adoption of successful new practices begins to transform markets, policy, and cultural norms — and these transformations provide ever-stronger incentives for adoption of new practices over time. This dynamic brings new practices to the scale needed to improve the quality and resilience of the Mississippi River system.



Logic Model

Our logic model is the practical map from our two strategies, through our program's many activities (including but not limited to grantmaking), and ultimately to the outcomes our river program strives to achieve.