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Spotlight: System Mapping for Advocacy Planning and Evaluation

Andy Stamp of Innovation Network and Julia Coffman of the Center for Evaluation Innovation offer an overview of system mapping, a method for illustrating complex systems and relationships.

System mapping is a useful method for both planning and evaluating efforts that aim to change systems –that is, how people and organizations relate. Systems efforts might, for example, try to change or improve the way in which an organization functions, create collaborative relationships or networks, or change the context or environment in which social change occurs.

When used for planning, this approach involves first visually mapping the system of interest and then identifying which parts and relationships are expected to change, and how. This process can occur in various ways. For example, it may involve key informant interviews or other forms of data collection to capture what the system looks like and how it is functioning. Alternatively, it may be co-constructed using a facilitated group process.

When used for evaluation, system mapping has a third step—measuring or capturing whether planned changes have occurred (Bloom and Dees, 2008). System map development can then be repeated over time to illustrate how the system has changed. Used in this way, system maps function much like theories of change—they show where changes are expected and help frame and guide evaluations. They also serve as powerful illustrations when presenting results to evaluation stakeholders.

Three Types of System Maps
Steve Waddell of Networking Action suggests that there are three broad categories of system maps, depending on their purpose (Waddell, 2009):

  1. Production System Maps
    The focus here is an organization or group (e.g., coalition, network). The map models organizational relationships or how the organization does its work. Network analysis or mapping—a technique that explores whether connections or relationships exist between people, groups, or institutions, as well as their nature and strength—is included in this category.
  2. Issue System Maps
    These maps illustrate the systems that surround and affect the issues that nonprofits or advocates are trying to change. They show how a nonprofit or advocacy effort is one of many factors and entities affecting the issue of interest.
  3. Mental Model Maps
    These visuals describe how people (individuals, groups, organizations) think the world works. Mental models include theories of change, power analyses, and cause-effect models in general.

Examples of System Mapping
Examples of how the three types of system maps have been used in advocacy planning or evaluation efforts follow.

Production System Map: CARE
Innovation Network is using system mapping in an evaluation for the humanitarian organization CARE. CARE engaged in a project to improve the organization’s systems—both globally and in the countries where CARE is located—for gathering, storing, and communicating evidence about CARE’s work and impact. The project was designed to change CARE’s evidence-related systems for the purpose of generating better data and information that could then be used more effectively in CARE’s advocacy efforts. The project introduced several “interventions” to create the desired systems changes.

CARE’s system maps were developed based on internal document reviews and semi-structured interviews with CARE principals and key informants. A series of maps were created that depicted a) the system at baseline, b) where interventions would be introduced in the system, and c) the system post-intervention. Just like theories of change, the mapping process added value by helping to clarify and further focus CARE’s systems change efforts. Once the system maps were produced, they were used to help set data collection priorities and to guide data collection planning.

>>To see a simplified version of the CARE map, see this handout, from a session at AEA 2009.

Issue System Map: Center for Victims of Torture
In its New Tactics in Human Rights Project, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) uses a form of system mapping called tactical mapping (Johnson and Pearson, 2009). This method illustrates the relationships between people and institutions that surround, benefit from, and sustain human rights abuses.

Engaging in tactical mapping helps advocates shape effective interventions—the maps help to identify who should be targeted at what point in the system, and how the relationships in the system must change. Armed with a better understanding of the system, advocates can design new interventions or modify current ones. Because the tactical map illustrates a large issue system, multiple groups can develop it collaboratively and then use it as a planning tool to identify who will do what either independently or together. Such collaboration can be important. For example, CVT found that most organizations working on human rights issues were using only one or two tactics repeatedly rather than learning new tactics and adapting their approaches. Groups can also use the map to identify potential allies and opponents.

CVT’s tactical mapping focuses on the relationships among individuals and institutions, rather than attempting to visualize all of the causes of human rights abuses. Symbols, colors, and arrows can be used to demonstrate various types and degrees of relationships. As envisioned by CVT, tactical mapping involves producing a database of maps that are updated frequently. Thus, tactical mapping is not only a brainstorming and planning exercise, but also a way to document changes over time.

>>See the Tactics in Human Rights website (www.newtactics.org) and resource page on tactical mapping (www.newtactics.org/en/tactical-mapping).

Mental Model Map: Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT
Organizational Research Services (ORS) developed “theory of change outcome maps” for several nonprofits advocating for policies to improve the lives of children and families (Gienapp, Reisman, and Stachowiak, 2009). These nonprofits include Connecticut Association for Human Services, Children First for Oregon, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, and Action for Children North Carolina. Similar in appearance to many logic models, the outcome maps were designed to help the nonprofits communicate their theory of change and visualize the links between strategies and outcomes.

>>See examples of the KIDS COUNT grantees’ outcome maps in ORS’ guide on this topic.

Summary: Advantages and Disadvantages
System mapping has some clear advantages, including that it produces visual tools that can be rapidly digested by stakeholders. Since a system map quickly communicates relationships visually, it can be useful in soliciting information about those relationships from participants in interviews or focus groups. Also, a participatory process of producing a system map can help to challenge assumptions, improve understanding, and promote consensus among stakeholders (Waddell, 2009).

System mapping also has some potential limitations. Because most system mapping is qualitative, when developing maps it is important to acknowledge the potential for bias and limitations of perspective. 


    Bloom, P. N. & Dees, G. (Winter 2008). Cultivate your ecosystem. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 46-53.

    Gienapp, A., Reisman, J., & Stachowiak, S. (2009). Getting started: A self-directed guide to outcome map development. Seattle, WA: Organizational Research Services.

    Johnson, D. A. & Pearson, N. L. (Summer 2009). Tactical mapping: How nonprofits can identify the levers of change. The Nonprofit Quarterly, 92-99.

    Waddell, S. (2009, October 30). Guest post by Steve Waddell: Systems mapping for non-profits: Part 1. Message posted to: http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2009/10/guest-post-by-steve-waddell-systems-mapping-for-nonprofits-part-1.html.

Andy Stamp is a Data & Evaluation Analyst at Innovation Network. Email: astamp [at] innonet [dot] org. Julia Coffman is Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation. Email: jcoffman [at] evaluationinnovation [dot] org.

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