Ripple Effects Mapping: An Effective Tool for Identifying Community Development Program Impacts

For Extension and research professionals working in community development, advancing the field and conveying its public value is hindered when it is difficult to identify and measure all the impacts of community development programs. Identifying impacts of community development work is often challenging due to several factors.  First, there is almost always a time lag between knowledge gained, behaviors undertaken and impacts realized. For example, it may be months or a year or more before someone taking a course on starting a small business actually writes a business plan, applies for a loan or quits their day job to become a full time entrepreneur. 

Pre-post evaluations and follow-up surveys aren’t guaranteed to elicit all the indirect “ripple effects” of a program either. Standard survey approaches may capture a percentage of participants reporting having learned something and provide participation numbers and measures of indicators that can be counted, but these evaluation methods rarely convey the stories of how Extension programs change lives and communities.  Someone who takes a leadership course might credit the knowledge and confidence gained with starting a community garden, but not the spin-offs resulting from the garden, such as new partnerships or increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by local children.

Moreover, community development work often focuses on building social capital, but tracking the results of new and improved relationships is difficult because there can be so many unanticipated, but fruitful outcomes when social capital is developed. 

Across the Extension system, educators are finding that stories of change and success are the most effective way to convey the public value of Extension programming.  A way to capture these stories, as well as detailed numerical data, is an emerging evaluation approach called Ripple Effects Mapping (REM).  REM also provides program participants an inspiring opportunity to reflect on all the ways their work has created positive change.  Several variations of the ripple mapping process have emerged in recent years. The one described here is referred to in a recent Journal of Extension article as the “One Ripple at a Time” approach (Emery, et. al., 2015).

Description of the REM Process

Ripple Effects Mapping (REM) is a group process that requires bringing together a sufficient number of program participants in a focus group setting (Hansen, et. al., 2012).   An Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach inquires into pathways of growth and innovation and focuses participants on program successes by having them spend time discussing several guiding questions in pairs before creating the ripple map (Cooperider, 2007).  AI questions will typically ask about how something has changed for the better as a result of the program. Questions developed for one REM process included the following:

  • Tell a story about how you and/or others have used information (e.g., trainings) from the leadership development program.
  • Is there anything you are especially proud of you’d like to share?
  • Are there any specific achievements or successes you are aware of?
  • Have you shared what you’ve learned with anyone?
  • What new resources or opportunities do you (and/or the community) have?
  • How has your and/or others’ attitudes or behaviors changed?

After the initial Appreciative Inquiry exercise, the facilitator asks participants to volunteer stories, using a large sheet of butcher paper to record the conversation.  Prompts such as “What did you do with that information/knowledge,”  “How many people were involved,” or “What was the dollar amount of the grant you received?” encourage participants to share their stories and outcomes, creating a rich and detailed narrative describing project impacts. If specific details about participant numbers, grant amounts and the like are not available at the moment, follow up interviews will be conducted afterward to obtain important details. 

Developing the map as stories unfold allows participants to control themes and see resulting ripples. They often see trends in their work. For example, one community group noticed their most successful efforts started with more investments in human and social capital. Maps can be simultaneously digitized on mapping software such as Xmind, or digitized after the exercise.  Figures 1 and 2 provide  examples of REM products.

One advantage of creating a digitized map is that it allows for dissemination to communities and groups and facilitates informal and formal analysis.  Digital maps can be enlarged, laminated and shared with communities and groups, who can then use them to share accomplishments, identify goals and objectives achieved as well as less successful efforts, and informally identify projects and outcomes that had or are having many positive ripple effects.  Figure 2 illustrates a program impact that had multiple ripples in youth leader development.  If ripples are contributing to numerous positive outcomes for youth and the community, the group may decide then to focus additional energy in this area.

Figure 1.  Example of ripple map created on butcher paper.


Figure 2. Digitized version of ripple map.

The software, in this case, Xmind, also allows us to export the map into a spreadsheet, making it easier to code data.  Figure 3 illustrates how the ripple map data can be coded according to the community capitals framework (CCF), a powerful framework for understanding community systems (Emery and Flora, 2006).  For the REM approach described here, community groups needn’t be familiar with CCF before creating their ripple map; they need to focus only on their stories of what happened.  Then when facilitators and researchers analyze the content, data can be condensed into categories, which are then coded to the CCF.  For example, the Figure 3 category of  “New Relationships Across Groups and Communities” is an amalgam of specific relationships established, such as between church groups or two neighboring communities, and the category is coded as “social capital.” Data can be further categorized into short, medium and long-term impacts if desired.

Figure 3. Spreadsheet example of a ripple map.

It takes a confident facilitator to ripple map effectively.  It is also helpful to have someone typing information into the software program simultaneously, which shortens the time invested by the facilitator and a recorder can capture great direct quotes by participants as they tell their stories.  Quotes will help tell the impact story and illustrate the public value of Extension community development programs in resulting reports and analysis.


References and Resources:

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2007). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. pp. 73-88 in P. Holman & T. Devane (eds.), The Change Handbook, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Emery, M., & Flora, C. B., (2006). Spiraling-up: Mapping community transformation with Community Capitals Framework. Community Development: Journal of the Community Development Society 37(1), 19-35.

Emery, M., Higgins, L., Chazdon, S.,  & Hansen, D. (2015). Using ripple effect mapping to evaluate program impact: choosing or combining the methods that work best for you. Journal of Extension [On-line], 53(2) Article 2TOT1. Available at:

Hansen Kollock, D. A., Flage, L., Chazdon, S., Paine, N., & Higgins, L. (2012). Ripple effect mapping: A “radiant” way to capture program impacts. Journal of Extension [On-line], 50(5) Article 5TOT6. Available at:

Xmind software available at:

Stevens County, Washington Extension “Tools” web page includes a description of the process, a handout for participants, a facilitator’s guide and a primer on the Community Capitals Framework:

For an evaluator’s perspective on Ripple Effect Mapping, see Scott Chazdon’s (UMN) blog: