Systems 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?

Patterns and Structure

What are the patterns of behavior, structures, and archetypes in 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.


Flexible from no/some participation to highly participatory


An expert with specialized knowledge or technology


1-5 months

What's its purpose in systems grantmaking?

To identify the most influential variables, prioritize high-leverage points for collective action, and test the impact of possible interventions on a system. Also, to form a shared vision of the ideal system and key systems indicators.

What is it?

Systems Mapping is a visual mapping resource that looks at how variables interact over time and form patterns of behaviors across the system. It combines two other visual mapping resources: Causal Loop Mapping with Stock and Flow Diagrams.

When is it useful?

  • When the complexity of the problem makes it difficult to untangle cause and effect and identify effective solutions
  • When collective actions are needed from multiple stakeholders to shift the system
  • When trying to influence a system at the macro, global, or multinational level
  • When dynamics in the overall system are replicated in subsystems (e.g., national issues replicated in multiple states)

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

  • Systems Mapping could help to prioritize where grantmakers need to focus. By identifying the most influential variables, there is potential for elegant solutions to influence patterns over time that can be replicated and scaled for different geographies.
  • The maps can be a challenge to understand for those who are not visual thinkers. They can also seem abstract, and their meaning can be hard to convey to stakeholders. Bringing people into the analysis early helps to diminish these challenges. 
  • Systems Mapping is often used as a tool for stakeholder engagement by “bringing the system into the room.” It should be a living map that guides actions and is revised as the system changes over time.


Systemic Change Process Map

By Joe Hsueh, Ph.D.
Academy for Systemic Change

Transformer: How to Build a Network to Change a System

By Heather McLeod Grant
Monitor Institute, 2010


Joe Hsueh, Ph.D.

Founding Partner, Academy for Systemic Change