New Frontiers | Our WorkGetting Started with Systems Mapping & Impact Management

in partnership with:
STATE: Active
DATE: July 17, 2023
STATUS: Open for public comment
Supporting documents:
STATE: Active
DATE: July 17, 2023
STATUS: Open for public comment

Introduction to Systems Mapping

Growing numbers of investors are exploring ways to integrate systems thinking into their impact management practices. Yet there are currently few real-world examples of systems mapping by impact investors. This workstream – which includes a discussion document, webinar, and discussion board – reviews basics of systems mapping techniques and explores how they might be applied in the future at the investment and portfolio levels. Its aim is to help investors get started with this promising practice and perhaps even inspire them to share their work, creating a repertoire of models for others to follow in the future.

Systems mapping broadly refers to the process of constructing a visual model of a system. At a minimum, these models include the system’s elements, the causal relationships between them, and an implicit or explicit system boundary.

Different systems mapping approaches produce different kinds of maps, which can be arranged along a spectrum from qualitative to quantitative. Qualitative system maps are typically built to analyze a system’s structure and identify leverage points, rather than for predictive analyses, and are therefore comparatively less sensitive to imperfect and/or incomplete information.

Figure 1: A map of the tensions between business activity and social action in a social enterprise. Source: Barbrook-Johnson and Penn


More quantitative system maps are built to consider or predict how elements may change over time, and are therefore comparatively more sensitive to imperfect and/or incomplete information.

Figure 2.1: Semi-quantitative system map of the UK Humber region bio-based economy. Source: Barbrook-Johnson and Penn


Figure 2.2: Quantitative system map of the relationship between pollution and tourism in the Maldives. Source: Barbrook-Johnson and Penn


Systems Mapping for Investors

Investors can use different kinds of system maps to inform decision-making at the investment and portfolio levels. At the investment level, investors can use semi-quantitative system maps to assess external, unexpected impact, and evidence risks for prospective investments. These risks are often relegated to the margins of theories of change that describe a linear causal pathway between an organization’s activities and their impact goals. Investment-level systems mapping can recast the process of developing a theory of change as a structured examination of impact risk rather than an exercise in articulating an investor’s intentions.

Figure 3: An example of a logic model structure for an investment-level theory of change.


Figure 4: An illustrative example of an investment-level theory of change that uses a semi-quantitative systems map to consider the impact of an investment on stakeholders. Researchers developed this systems map to investigate the impact of the bio-based energy economy in the United Kingdom’s Humber region (Penn et al.) Investor and BBE Energy Company boxes added by Impact Frontiers.


At the portfolio level, investors can use qualitative system maps to consider where their resources may have more or less leverage over their impact goals. Investment- and portfolio-level systems mapping can then become mutually reinforcing processes, in which investors use portfolio-level systems maps to guide overall fund strategy, pipeline sourcing, and screening; use investment-level system maps to evaluate prospective deals during due diligence; and in turn use the results of their investment-level systems maps to update and refine their portfolio-level system maps.

Figure 5: Portfolio-level and investment-level systems mapping as mutually reinforcing decision-making processes.


Evidence & Stakeholder Voice

At both levels, investors can assess the strength of the evidence base for their system maps in terms of the diversity of stakeholder perspectives that they have engaged and incorporated. Robert Ricigliano, Systems and Complexity Coach at The Omidyar Group, refers to this as the “multiple biases” principle: though a system map built from one individual or organization’s perspective may be biased, system maps get progressively less biased as they integrate a greater diversity of perspectives, each of which shines a light on a part of the system that others may not be as well-positioned to see.

Under this approach, centering stakeholder engagement in systems mapping processes can not only improve the quality and utility of the maps themselves, but may also ameliorate power imbalances between investors and their stakeholders. In this way, systems mapping underscores stakeholder engagement as both tactically and ethically desirable.



This workstream is intended to provide investors with one possible way to get started with systems mapping. There are very few publicly available case studies for investors on this topic, and we are eager to hear from practitioners about their experiences with systems mapping, and their reactions, feedback, and comments on this emerging thinking.

What additional practices and/or guidance have practitioners come across that can help investors utilize systems mapping techniques to inform decision-making? In which contexts are these kinds of systems mapping techniques more or less useful to investors?

Click the link below to weigh in on the systems mapping discussion board!

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Skip to content