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  • Eddie Knight

Causing a ripple in evaluation: how Ripple Effect Mapping can provide new insights

In recent years, we have noticed a shift in the research and evaluation landscape. This has been driven by a growing demand amongst clients to create deeper insights about projects and programmes so they can develop a better understanding of the wider impacts of their work.  

This goes beyond the usual evaluation approaches centred on measuring outputs and outcomes. Emphasis is on helping clients to develop a more nuanced understanding of their impacts and the mechanisms through which change occurs. It enables a deeper recognition of the complexities inherent in most social interventions.

In responding to this, we are continually seeking to innovate and modernise our approaches, to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the full breadth of impacts that our client’s work generates. Over the past 18-24 months, we have increasingly been deploying Ripple Effects Mapping (REM) techniques to identify the intended and unintended effects of physical activity initiatives in schools and communities. This is in direct response to those clients who are seeking more alternative approaches to capture ‘what’s really going on’ in their projects and programmes.

What is Ripple Effect Mapping?

Ripple Effect Mapping or REM is a participatory evaluation method that is particularly effective for understanding the broad range of impacts that occur over time. It is particularly useful for understanding impacts within the context of complex systems and is sensitive to the fact that projects and interventions are not delivered in vacuums. 

REM is carried out in workshops where a range of stakeholders are brought together that may include programme delivery and management staff, partners, community members, decision-makers, and beneficiaries. Participants are invited to collectively reflect on the changes they have experienced or witnessed with a focus on capturing experiences that are not always reported in standard monitoring and evaluation practices. These impact pathways, or ripples, are plotted along a timeline to produce a visual representation of how impacts have occurred over time. Discussions are facilitated to ascertain how the attendees have been affected by the delivery of the initiative. Through these discussions, we identify specific factors that have helped facilitate or acted as barriers to change.

Why use REM?

Often evaluation methodologies, for example interviewing or surveying, capture only a snapshot of what has happened. A traditional impact evaluation may include a baseline and follow-up survey which would typically seek to identify any changes in activity levels or wellbeing. Yet they can fail to provide deeper insight into the wider impacts ‘ripples’ of intervention/s, provide a longitudinal view or greater understanding of how and why change has or has not occurred.

REM enables project partners to identify where the key intended and unintended impacts have occurred. This process allows us as evaluators to draw out learning relating to the specific factors that have helped or hindered the progress of an initiative. It can be surprising to see some of the impacts that are noted. Discussions can be varied and insightful not just for us as evaluators but for all workshop participants.

two green boxes one with the words Walking Tennis Session, 10 people attended and completed initial survey. It has an icon of 2 tennis rackets. The 2nd box has the words: Follow up Survey, difference in phyiscal activity or wellbeing measured. It has an icon of 2 people talking. These boxes are conneted by feet and an arrow pointing from the first to the second box
Traditional evaluation approach shows a snapshot of impacts

REM workshops therefore seek something much wider than other evaluation methods. It is shaped by those who have been most closely engaged with the intervention and allows a much deeper understanding of the wider impacts that may (or may not) have taken place, helping to explain how those impacts have occurred. The example below illustrates the sort of information relating to wider outcomes that can be uncovered as part of a REM workshop relating to the same Walking Tennis activity.

One green box with tennis racket icons and words: Walking Tennis Session - this is followed by 9 teal coloured boxes stating different outcomes including: Access to funding, new membership, new services and new community partnerhsips
Example of wider impacts from a REM workshop

What are the benefits of taking an REM approach to evaluation

  • Participatory: Workshops foster a sense of collective ownership and buy-in to the evaluation process.

  • Collaboration: The method enables stakeholders to interact and collaborate to develop a more rounded understanding of the impacts from different perspectives. Participants often extend their learning by engaging with others in the facilitated workshops and roundtables.

  • Longitudinal: Convening multiple workshops over a period of 12 to 24 months enables a greater understanding of how initiatives generate change over time. It also helps to identify the specific factors that have been important in enabling change to occur.

  • Visual Outputs: Developing a visual representation of impacts and impact pathways helps show how impacts were generated and over what time scales.

  • Context: It enables us to gain a deeper understanding of the contextual backdrop identifying the factors that have influenced an initiative’s ability to generate impacts.

Where have we used REM to date?

Get Out Get Active (GOGA)

A £5 million programme funded by Spirit of 2012, Sport England and London Marathon Foundation, GOGA sought to support the least active disabled and non-disabled people in communities across the UK to be active. REM was used to identify the ripple effects of the programme, uncovering the significant impacts that had occurred amongst beneficiaries, local delivery organisations, their networks, and their local systems. 

Active Places Pilot

A Sport England funded physical activity pilot that adopted a whole-system approach to addressing physical activity in two contrasting communities in County Durham. REM was the primary research method with five workshops delivered over 18 months. The evaluation helped to demonstrate the changes in ways of working, levels of collaboration between partners to reduce duplication and how collective resources were maximised. A series of guiding principles were developed to inform future place-based initiatives in the County.

County Durham Active Schools Programme

The programme supported primary and secondary schools across Durham to implement a whole-school approach to improving physical literacy and increasing levels of activity across the school day. REM workshops with participating schools helped to identify the factors and conditions that are most important in driving whole school change around physical literacy.

The increased demand amongst clients for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of project impacts has led us to further adapt and develop our expertise in REM. This has proven invaluable across a range of interventions enabling us to capture the full breadth of impacts beyond what is possible through other approaches. It is an approach that can be applied to different use cases, to develop a more granular understanding of projects and initiatives from wide-ranging perspectives.

If you would like to find out more about REM and whether it would be appropriate to uncover impacts for your initiative or programme, get in touch with Simon Tanner and Eddie Knight


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