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Is Solving Nonprofits' Challenges as Easy as Creating a Map?

Organizations frustrated by scarce resources, missed opportunities for collaboration, and the inability to conduct research are looking to mapping.

A sliver of Chris Jordan's artistic representation of a social impact mapping project

At social impact conferences this fall—from Ixtapa, Mexico to Iowa City, Iowa and Deauville, France to Washington, D.C.—the new buzzword is “mapping.” Organizations frustrated by scarce resources, missed opportunities for collaboration, and the inability to conduct research on their own are increasingly looking toward mapping entire movements as a solution.

Social impact mapping is a simple idea: Find out who is doing what where, and how well it’s working. Yet mapping a field—particularly in this era of decentralization and economic instability—isn’t easy. Explosive growth in the nonprofit sector adds to the complexity. According to a new report by Susan Raymond of Changing Our World, Inc., the number of foundations in the U.S. has doubled in the past 20 years, while grant dollars have grown 43 percent since 1999. But the number of registered public charities has tripled in the last decade, far outpacing the growth rate in giving. Competition for funding has never been so steep.

So the first key challenge to mapping work is finding the time and resources. More than 140 U.S. foundations gathered at a conference hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Monitor Institute last month to explore ways to draw connections between organizations. According to Diana Scearce and Lori Bartczak of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, who reported on the gathering: “Maximizing impact… means that funders need to act as conveners, champions, and matchmakers that connect people, ideas, and resources—in addition to getting money out the door. This means doing more than investing in discrete programs and individual organizations. It means catalyzing networks.”

John Cary, editor and curator of and an occasional contributor at GOOD, began mapping the socially focused design movement this fall after growing frustrated with the lack of collaboration and communication among humanitarian designers, pro bono architects, and their various nonprofit clients and philanthropic supporters. “I’m really more interested in connecting the dots these days than creating new ones,” he says.

One ambitious effort toward mapping is Future 5000, an online tool a decade in the making that maps more than 700 U.S.-based progressive youth organizations. Every organization has their own profile that describes work in one of four sectors: campus, community, civic engagement, or cultural. An alliance of 10 youth organizations—including the League of Young Voters, Movement Strategy Center, and Young People For—are working together to create the interactive, online space. “We've felt the staggering affects of having little time to reach out and learn from one another about successful strategies and tactics,” the founders wrote on the site. “We understand the lack of opportunities and space afforded to building alliances in this pivotal movement.”

Attempts to map movements are not new. After 15 years of collecting business cards at conferences, environmental activist Paul Hawken decided to “map” what he called the “movement that no one saw coming” in his 2007 book Blessed Unrest. Hawken and a team of researchers created a digital database, now housed at WiserEarth, that now includes 113,576 organizations and 60,648 individuals working in three interrelated movements: social justice, environmentalism, and indigenous culture. The map was also represented by photographer Chris Jordan in a breathtaking piece called E Pluribus Unum—a 24-foot-square artwork with the names of every participating organization.

Smaller mapping efforts, sometimes called “environmental scans,” have also taken shape—many aimed toward research and development rather than creating comprehensive directories. In 2010, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum commissioned a mapping of the 115 organizations and individuals working on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, in an effort to better understand what museum leaders call an “emerging movement.” They found that the movement was young and diffuse, and lacked both a convening body and a consensus on key questions facing the movement. In a report on the mapping effort, Jill Savitt, senior advisor to the museum’s Committee on Conscience, spotlighted six organizations with particularly effective approaches, creating a list of best practices others could draw on. She has presented the public scan at more than a dozen meetings, including gatherings of funders and United Nations officials.

As mapping efforts become more common, one challenge is finding a balance between collecting and curating. Maintaining terabytes of data on every social justice organization in a given field is all but useless if that data isn’t searchable—ideally, it’s visual, narrative, and inspiring. Savitt says some of the most valuable “data” that came out of the Holocaust museum’s effort were people’s stories. “The idea of mapping also is not just quantitative, but qualitative,” she says. “The interviews I did with 15 leaders were enormously useful, providing context and nuance about the relative health and strength of our field.”

That means writers who can paint vivid profiles of leaders and investigate scalable solutions are key to mapping efforts, as are graphic designers and visual artists who can translate words into visual impact. If mapping movements is going to measurably improve the nonprofit sector, there’s a role for just about everyone.

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