Concept 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


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.


Highly participatory


An expert with specialized knowledge or technology


Less than 1 month

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To align varying beliefs about how to influence a system, understand how different groups of stakeholders contribute and create a collective plan for systems change.

What is it?

A visual mapping technique that uses a six-step process to depict how different types of stakeholders cluster ideas into larger concepts. The six steps include the following:

  1. Preparation: Identify the project focus and relevant stakeholder groups. 
  2. Generation: Collect qualitative data about stakeholder perceptions (e.g., what they think are solutions to a problem). 
  3. Structuring: Sort the answers from the second step into clusters of similar ideas. Participants also rate each idea (e.g., based on its importance and feasibility for influencing the system).
  4. Representation: Use multidimensional scaling and hierarchical cluster analysis to map the clusters by stakeholder group and rating. 
  5. Interpretation: Make meaning of the maps and work through areas of alignment and disagreement. 
  6. Utilization: Create plans to change the system. 

Some advanced technology is needed. 

When is it useful?

  • In settings where multiple types of stakeholders need to work together to influence the system
  • In systems bounded by a particular issue area or field of work

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

  • It is critical to engage diverse systems stakeholders in order to identify different conceptions and roles and to forge common agreements about actions and responsibilities moving forward. For more participatory processes, managing power dynamics is key.
  • The generation and structuring phases may involve dozens to thousands of people and can be implemented inperson or virtually. 
  • The representation phase requires special expertise and technology to be successful.
  • It is helpful for the interpretation phase to be implemented in person to strengthen relationships among systems stakeholders and the system’s capacity for self-organizing. A facilitator can help stakeholders understand the somewhat abstract maps and identify implications for systems change priorities and their roles.
  • This method has been used in conjunction with Rapid Realist Review, Social Network Analysis, and Developmental Evaluation.


Concept Mapping

By William M. Trochim

Greater Than the Sum: Systems Thinking in Tobacco Control

By the National Cancer Institute
Tobacco Control Monograph, 2007


William M. Trochim, Ph.D.

Professor, College of Human Ecology, Department of Policy Analysis and Management

Cornell University