We’re always looking for ways to help our clients see their work with fresh eyes and within the context of the sector, they are working in, especially when doing multi-year strategic planning.  It can be easy for single organizations, uber-focused as they are on their missions, to consider themselves the center of their universe rather than one of the (of course essential!) planets in the constellation of organizations working on a problem. One tool for planning that we’d like to share is ecosystem mapping, which can aid in this larger-scope thinking and help organizations and coalitions think about their role within the landscape of the work they do and the ultimate impact they are trying to have.

What exactly is an ecosystem map and why should nonprofits care?

Conceptually, a nonprofit ecosystem is no different than, for example, the different systems in the human body:  nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, etc.  Each system performs a complex set of functions and relates to each of the other systems in critical ways.  Or an ecosystem in the natural world:  biologists can better understand single organisms if studying them within the context of other flora and fauna in the ecosystem as well as changes in the environment. When we depict an ecosystem in the form of a visual map not only is it an important step to learning and understanding, but it can lead to insights, connections, and breakthroughs.

In the context of the nonprofit world, an ecosystem map is a visual depiction of the landscape within which a nonprofit operates as a means to identifying gaps in essential services and functions, strategizing beyond symptoms of a problem, and addressing the larger systemic issues and problems at play.  It’s a way to graphically represent and grasp the complexity and dynamics between all the entities, functions, relationships, opportunities and environmental factors within a particular issue area.

A foundation for stimulating our best thinking

One of my first experiences with ecosystem mapping in a planning process was several years ago.  It involved creating a diagram of the radically changing media landscape as a way to better understand its impact on progressive issues and policies.  The end result didn’t require graphic design skills (nor was it particularly graphically pleasing) but it did provide a foundation for a large group of people from different organizations at a planning retreat to dive into the implications of the changed landscape, identify ways to influence it, and ultimately coalesce around key pieces of the progressive communications platform that was necessary but missing.

Creating your own ecosystem map

If you’d like to try ecosystem mapping in your planning process, we’ve found the following four steps are easy to follow (i.e. you don’t have to hire a consultant!) and generate good results.

STEP 1: Identify the players in your ecosystem

First, brainstorm all the different players in your ecosystem (including yourselves).  Consider:

  • Resource providers:  all the people contributing time and money to the issue as well as the knowledge and information central to your issue
  • Key allies and complementary movements:  your primary partners, allied organizations, and complementary movements
  • Key stakeholders:  those who stand to gain the most from solving the problem…your clients, beneficiaries, customers
  • Opponents and problem makers:  those people and organizations actively working against you and/or creating the problem or making it worse
  • Influential bystanders:  those people with power and influence who aren’t currently activated to your cause but who might be, and/or those people who are affected by your issue tangentially.

STEP 2: Identify the environmental conditions

Next, brainstorm the primary environmental conditions affecting your issue.


  • Politics and administrative processes and structures: new laws, rules, regulations, processes, procedures, corruption
  • Economics: economic health, distribution of wealth, growth of markets, trends in fundraising 
  • Geography & infrastructure: physical location, transportation, communication, urban/rural/suburban issues
  • Societal norms and culture: norms, beliefs, values, cultural memes, social networks, demographic trends
  • Research:  scientific breakthroughs, relevant studies, impact trends

STEP 3: Create a visual map

Many organizations complete steps one and two above in traditional strategic planning processes, but don’t take the next step of putting it all together in the form of a drawing or diagram. But if you do, that can be when the real insights and connections happen.

There is no one “right” way to create an ecosystem map. We’ve found these guidelines helpful:

  • Create it collaboratively:  The right map is the one that is created collaboratively with the engagement of those who will be doing the strategizing and planning.  So, that might be your board and staff team, or if you’re a coalition, representatives from member organizations.  You might create it in one large group, or divide up into small groups to create different versions, comparing the results by noting similarities and differences. The dialogue and discussion that happens while you’re creating your map not only breeds engagement and a sense of ownership, but brings about insights, revelations and excitement about possibilities.
  • Know the group:  We’ve found that some people love spending hours constructing the perfect visual and others find it tedious and confusing.  We’ve seen people build their maps directly on their computers, or by rolling out huge pieces of butcher paper and breaking out the marker pens.  Know your group and design your process accordingly.
  • Beware of over-emphasizing your individual organization’s role in the ecosystem:  Some organizations, with all the best of intentions, can’t help but put themselves smack in the middle of their issue universe.  This “magical thinking” can hinder the process of creating effective strategies and mapping a path to lasting societal change.  So be honest and reflective about the role you are truly playing.

STEP 4: Strategize!

Ultimately, your map is useful only if it leads to insights and action plans: building more promising pathways for change, exploring new partnerships, identifying ways to change conditions in the external environment, determining more efficient operating practices, etc.    With that in mind, make sure you devote time to reflect and draw conclusions.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking a few powerful questions to get a dialogue going, listening carefully to the discussion that follows, and following the discussion through to the farthest point possible.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • What are the dilemmas or opportunities we see in our ecosystem map?
  • What conditions in our environment most need to change in order for us to make headway on our issue, and how can we influence and encourage that change?
  • Are there key players or roles missing from our ecosystem?
  • Is our organization (still) relevant?
  • What new innovations or functions might we introduce to our ecosystem that would have the most positive impact?

A powerful process

Ecosystem mapping isn’t the answer to everything, but it can be a creative, engaging and useful tool in strategic thinking, planning, and decision-making.  If you want to learn more, check out these online links:

Cultivate Your Ecosystem. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Paul N. Bloom & J. Gregory Dees.  2008.
Thinking about your Ecosystem.  Consulting Within Reach.  2009.
Mapping the News and Information Ecosystem.  Journalism that Matters.  Peggy Holman. 2013.
The Beat: Mapping the Arts Ecosystem.  Business for Culture and the Arts. Deborah’s Column.  2012.