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Ripple effect mapping

Ripple effect mapping makes waves in the world of evaluation

An Extension Master Gardner volunteer helping kids in St. Paul take care of a community garden.
A Ramsey County Master Gardeners (RCMG) volunteer working with kids in St. Paul. RCMG volunteers participated in a ripple-effect mapping session to evaluate outcomes and build relationships.

Ripples are tiny waves generated when someone drops a stone into the water. But ripple effect mapping is generating some big waves in the world of evaluation.

Why? Because ripple effect mapping, or REM, is more than an evaluation technique.

Just ask Mike Liepold, former University of Minnesota Extension leadership and civic engagement educator. Mike used the REM process twice to evaluate the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program — a leadership education program

"We collect a lot of quantitative data on our MARL classes," Liepold says. "That's important, but the data doesn't tell a story that's interesting or resonates with our stakeholders. REM brings some color and life to the statistics we share."

Liepold also cites a distinct benefit that the process offers to "humble" Midwesterners. "They might not want to talk about their own successes, but REM lets them talk about what others have done."

How Extension uses REM

Extension has been using REM to discover the impacts of community projects or programs. REM sessions combine several evaluation techniques to produce "maps" that tell the story of a program. Of course, these maps don't depict geography — they depict the effects of an initiative. And, as noted, the maps also do more than inform an evaluation report.

"Ripple effect mapping is a powerful technique to document the impacts of a project or program. But REM also engages and re-energizes community members who need a shot in the arm as they get things done. Conventional evaluation techniques like surveys and focus groups don't do that," says Scott Chazdon. Chazdon is the evaluation and research specialist with the Extension Department of Community Development (CD). "It can't replace conventional evaluation techniques, but it's a great addition to the evaluator's toolbox," he notes.

St. Paul community organizer Melvin Giles has seen the positive energy ripple effect mapping creates in groups. He's worked with Chazdon to conduct a ripple effect mapping session with participants in Ramsey County's Master Gardeners program.

"People keep asking me, 'When's the next mapping?'" Giles says. "They're excited about it." He also says REM sessions have built relationships among people in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods of St. Paul. "The sessions help narrow those degrees of separation," he says. "And we use the maps to show what we have in common."

Origins and interest

REM was first used between 2007 and 2009 to look at the impact of the Horizons program, an 18-month effort to strengthen leadership and reduce poverty. Program leaders in Washington, Idaho, and North Dakota piloted the method to learn about outcomes of the program over time. Each state varied the process a bit, but they all used the same key components of REM to capture and communicate accomplishments, as well as further community members' enthusiasm for taking action on issues.

After learning about the Horizons experience, Chazdon and other CD staff thought REM would be an effective way to evaluate community development programs. So they started conducting REM sessions in fall 2011. As other Minnesota communities and organizations saw how the process works, they asked for help doing it themselves. Chazdon and his colleagues in other states also are spreading the word at training sessions throughout the country. In 2017, Chazdon led the publication of a book about the process. Published by University of Minnesota Libraries, the Field Guide to Ripple Effects Mapping gives step-by-step guidance for making the process work and also examines the origins of the method.

REM is a great fit for evaluating community development work because of its combination of methods and its multiple benefits, Chazdon says. "It's an excellent way to encourage reflection, capture what relationships can lead to, and motivate people to continue their work in communities."

Mix of methods

REM combines four evaluation methods — one-to-one interviews, group interviewing, mind mapping, and qualitative data analysis. REM is conducted in five steps:

  1. Decide whether REM is right for a particular initiative. REM is best used to identify outcomes in interventions that have a goal beyond specific individual outcomes.
  2. Schedule the event and invite participants. The REM process involves community or organization members who participated in a project, as well as sponsors or partners. A group of 12 to 20 participants is ideal.
  3. Conduct interviews using Appreciative Inquiry questions to start the group conversation. Appreciative Inquiry is a group facilitation method that invites people to reflect on the positive aspects of a project. At the start of a ripple effect mapping session, participants pair up and interview each other about ways their community was positively affected by a project. These interviews serve as an ice-breaker to prepare participants for the group mapping session.
  4. Ripple effect mapping of CURE Big Stone County
    Results from a mind mapping session
    Hold a group mapping session. The core of a REM session involves group mapping — a process of brainstorming and recording the effects (the "ripples") of a project or program. Groups can use either mind mapping software or notes taped to a wall. This process engages the entire group and helps participants see connections among the effects they're describing. Participants also continue building personal relationships). A facilitator and a mapper co-lead the mapping session, which lasts from one to two hours. The resulting "mind map" visually depicts the effects of an intervention. For example, effects might include greater civic engagement, more public services or new economic activity.
  5. Clarify, code, and analyze data. After the session, the project leader reorganizes the mind map and collects additional details by interviewing other participants. Data produced in the mapping process can be downloaded into a spreadsheet and coded to represent the various project or program impacts. For community development programs, we often code things using the Community Capitals Framework.

Benefits of REM

Chazdon cites four benefits of ripple effect mapping:

  • It's simple and inexpensive. Mind-mapping software is available for low or no cost, and it's more efficient to gather participants together for one meeting than to conduct individual interviews.
  • It captures the impacts of complex work. The technique successfully documents both intended and unintended effects of a project or program. REM lets participants describe the connections they have built, as well as what the connections led to.
  • It's motivating and inspiring. Because REM engages both program participants and non-participant stakeholders, it creates positive energy for further local action.
  • It's an effective communication tool. The visual nature of ripple maps makes them ideal for sharing project or program impacts with stakeholders like funders or local officials. The depth and specificity of information captured in a ripple map also benefits communications.
Hugo Minnesota ripple effect mapping
Ripple effect map about Hugo, Minnesota's business retention and expansion

Michael Darger, Extension community economics specialist, especially appreciates REM as a communications tool. He led REM sessions in five Minnesota communities that participated in Extension's Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Strategies program from 2009 to 2013.

Three of the five communities won international awards for their programs because their award nomination letters precisely described accomplishments captured by REM. "Of course, winning the awards inspired program participants to continue BRE projects," Darger says. "But even people in communities that didn't win awards were motivated by what they saw in maps produced from their REM sessions."

Maintain perspective

The benefits of REM are exciting, but Chazdon urges users to maintain perspective. Multiple evaluation methods are usually needed to tell a complete story of a program's effectiveness, he says.

Furthermore, ripple effect mapping is a valuable tool, but "it's up to a community or other group to put the information captured to good use," Chazdon adds. "Evaluators and facilitators can only go so far. It's up to the people involved to keep things going."

Learn more

For more information about ripple effect mapping in Minnesota, contact Scott Chazdon.

Reviewed in 2018

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