Causal Loop Mapping

Resource Type

Visual Mapping

These resources result in a visual representation of systems, each through a particular lens (e.g., social relationships, political power, issues and concepts).

Systems Questions

Variables

What are the events, activities, actions, behaviors, and forces that affect the system, and how can we influence them?

Grantmaking Stages

Develop grantmaking strategy

Resources in this category can help you understand the system, identify outcomes and determine grantmaking interventions.

Identify and select grantees

Resources in this category can help you understand who is in the system, the strength and content of their relationships, who is missing and the power dynamics among them.

Participation

Flexible from no/some participation to highly participatory

Expertise

Someone who has been trained on the resource and/or An expert with specialized knowledge or technology

Time

1-5 months

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To influence the system by identifying ways to dampen, amplify, or break relationships among the variables. 

What is it?

A visual mapping technique that employs feedback loops to show the interconnected variables causing system outcomes and the direction of influence between variables. Variables may include events, forces, stakeholders, norms, etc. This resource may be used independently or as a part of Systems Mapping.

When is it useful?

  • When trying to address a specific problem, and 
  • In systems bounded by an issue area or field of work.

What are tips and cautions for systems grantmakers and the social sector?

  • It is important to view causal loop maps as historical and not predictive.
  • The maps can be complicated and difficult to digest for those not involved in creating them, prompting some grantmakers to create simplified versions for sharing. 
  • Some grantmakers use the map to make meaning of the system. Others use the map as a way to engage grantees, with the process rather than the map itself as central to developing grantee capacity for systems thinking. With participatory approaches, it is important for stakeholders to recognize that they have shared interests (although they may have different goals), consider how their actions affect each other, and manage power dynamics among participants. In these approaches, grantmakers have also paired this map as the first step in developmental evaluation and systemic action learning to develop collective understanding of the system.
  • It is easy to misinterpret causal loop maps because they usually do not show the magnitude of effect on variables or patterns of behavior over time. It’s important to be cautious about drawing conclusions regarding the net impact of loops. To use the example above, if time spent on fundraising dropped in half and bipartisan relationships increased by a tenth, the net impact would still be insufficient bipartisanship. Without the magnitudes, one could incorrectly assume they cancel each other out.
  • If greater precision about the net impact of loops is desired, grantmakers could consider using Systems Mapping and System Dynamics Modeling instead of Causal Loop Mapping.

It is possible to create a causal loop map without any advanced technology, but technology such as the online cloud-based mapping platform, Kumu, allows for advanced mapping capabilities, sharing and multi-user mapping manipulation, as well as iterative use of the maps. 

Resources

Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams

By Daniel Kim
The Systems Thinking, 1992

Acknowledgments

Daniel Stid, Ph.D.

Director, The Madison Initiative, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation