Ripple effect mapping makes waves in the world of evaluation
A Ramsey County Master Gardeners (RCMG) volunteer works with kids in the Rondo neighborhood of 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, University of Minnesota Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement educator, who has used the REM process twice to evaluate the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program — a leadership education initiative.
"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."
University of Minnesota Extension educators and specialists have been using REM for about three years to discover the impacts of community projects or programs. REM sessions combine several evaluation techniques to produce "maps" for use by community leaders and heads of organizations. 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 not only a powerful technique to document impacts of a project or program — it also engages and re-energizes community members around shared goals in ways that conventional evaluation techniques like surveys and focus groups do not," says Scott Chazdon, Evaluation and Research Specialist with the Extension Center for Community Vitality (CV). "Ripple effect mapping is not a substitute for conventional evaluation techniques, but it's a great addition to the evaluator's tool box," he notes.
St. Paul community organizer Melvin Giles has witnessed the positive energy created by ripple effect mapping. As a community liaison with Extension, he recently worked with Chazdon to conduct a ripple effect mapping session with participants in the Ramsey County Master Gardeners program.
"People keep asking me, 'When's the next mapping?'" Giles says. "They're excited about it." He also says the REM sessions have helped build 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 extensively between 2007 and 2009 to analyze the impact of the Horizons program, an 18-month community-based effort to strengthen leadership to reduce poverty (see link below). The method was piloted in selected Washington, Idaho, and North Dakota communities to learn about outcomes of the program over time. While each state varied the process a bit, 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 CV staff thought REM would be an effective way to evaluate leadership and other Extension-sponsored programs. So they started conducting REM sessions in fall 2011. As of spring 2014, CV staff members have conducted about more than 20 REM sessions in communities and organizations working with Extension. As other Minnesota communities and organizations see how the process works, they seek Extension's help in using REM themselves. Chazdon and colleagues in other states also are spreading the word about ripple effect mapping at conferences and in training sessions throughout the country.
REM is a great fit for evaluating community development work because of its unique 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 community building efforts."
Mix of methods
REM combines four distinct evaluation methods, including one-to-one interviews, group interviewing, mind mapping, and qualitative data analysis. REM is conducted in five steps:
- Decide whether REM is right for a particular initiative. REM is best used to identify outcomes after an intervention that was expected to produce changes beyond specific individual outcomes.
- Schedule the event and invite participants. The REM process involves community or organization members who participated in a project or program, as well as sponsors or partners. A group of 12 to 20 participants is ideal.
- 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 most positive aspects of a situation, or in this case, a project or program. At the start of a ripple effect mapping session, participants pair up and interview each other about ways they or their community or organization were positively affected by an intervention. These interviews serve as an ice-breaker to prepare participants for the group mapping session.
- Hold a group mapping session. The core of an REM session involves group mapping — a process of brainstorming and recording the effects (the "ripples") of a project or program — either through mind mapping software or notes taped to a wall. This process engages the entire group and enables participants to see the connections among project or program effects (as well as 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 (see link to images below). For example, effects might include greater civic engagement; added public services; or new economic activity.
- Clarify, code, and analyze data. After the session, the project leader may need to reorganize the mind map and collect additional detail 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.
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. For example, Extension programming often builds social capital—the trust and connections among people. 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 direct program participants and non-participant stakeholders, it creates positive energy for further collective action.
- It's an effective communication tool. The visual nature of ripple maps makes them ideal for sharing project or program impacts with stakeholders, such as funders or local officials. The depth and specificity of information captured in a ripple map also benefits communications.
Michael Darger, Extension Community Economics specialist, especially appreciates REM as an aid to communicating, as well as documenting, program impacts. He led REM sessions in five Minnesota communities that participated in Extension's Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) Strategies program from 2009-2013.
Three of the five communities won international awards for their programs because their award nomination precisely described accomplishments captured by REM. "Not surprisingly, winning the awards inspired and re-energized program participants to continue BR&E 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."
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."
- University of Minnesota Extension REM blog
- Images of ripple maps — including Frogtown/Rondo Master Gardeners map
- "Ripple effect mapping: A 'radiant' way to capture program impacts," Journal of Extension, October 2012
- "Capturing the ripples from community-driven business retention and expansion programs," Journal of Extension, April 2014
- Horizons in Minnesota
For more information about ripple effect mapping in Minnesota, contact Scott Chazdon.