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Outcome Mapping: An actor-based planning and monitoring tool for Social Accountability and Advocacy

What is Outcome Mapping?

Outcome mapping is a participatory planning, monitoring, and evaluation method that focuses on behavior change as the most useful result to monitor, providing a set of tools for development initiatives to map the system they are working in and agree on whose behavior needs to change and how—for the system to progress positively even after the initiative ends. In this way, it puts people and their actions, relationships, and interactions, at the center of planning.

When should you use Outcome Mapping?

The evaluation unit of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) developed Outcome Mapping [1] in response to a growing realization that to be effective and sustainable, any donor-funded development process will need to be owned by local actors who can take the process forward even after the funding has stopped. It also acknowledges that many challenges communities face are systemic in nature. This means that these challenges are interrelated and mutually dependent. To address them, it will be necessary to understand the actors, relationships, and behaviors that have the power to change the situation—or maintain it. As such, this tool is useful for any initiative seeking to contribute toward complex change (e.g., advocacy initiative).

How can we apply Outcome Mapping to plan complex change processes?

Step 1: Developing an actor-focused Theory of Change

Example of an actor-focused Theory of Change from the ‘Strengthening Rural Governance for the Right to Adequate Food’ program

An actor-focused Theory of Change consists of three concentric spheres (sphere of control, sphere of influence, and sphere of interest) that are used to map the initiative’s actors according to how they seem to influence each other as they contribute towards the overall vision of the initiative.

Outcome mapping encourages teams to analyze actors, for example, by prioritizing them and listing the key groups or individuals (key actors) whom the initiative should influence or support directly and who are believed to play a key role in contributing to the overall vision of the initiative (sphere of interest). The initiative has no control over the key actors, but it can work with them and influence them to effect change.

Therefore these actors are located in the initiative’s sphere of influence. The power to make changes towards the initiative’s vision (in the sphere of interest) rests with them. Hence, any changes in their behavior can be considered an important effect or result to which the initiative may have contributed, as the key actors may then contribute to changes in the sphere of interest.

In some advocacy initiatives, many different actors may be mapped and found in the sphere of influence. In this case, the actors may be grouped into actor groups, or single actors can be representatives for a group of actors.

The sphere of control contains the initiative’s actors who exert a considerable level of control over the initiative’s finance, inputs, activities, and outputs. The actors here, such as the initiative-implementing team and the service providers, realize the initiative’s strategies and activities.

Step 2: Using progress markers to develop an actor-focused results framework

© Illustration by Civil Society Academy

The second step involves developing a set of progress markers for each key actor in the initiative’s sphere of influence. Progress markers describe the key actors’ intended changes in practice or behavior moving from initial, more easy to achieve changes (“expect to see” progress markers) to deeper changes that may take more time to materialize (“like to see” progress markers) as well as the ideal behavior that would demonstrate that the boundary partner is well on its way to contributing optimally to the initiative’s vision (“love to see” progress markers).

Progress markers are Measurable, Attainable, and Realistic but they differ from SMART indicators, as they are not necessarily time-bound nor do they require pre-specified targets. Knowing that the actual change is beyond the control of the initiative and often unpredictable, the expected change as set out by the progress markers can turn out differently in reality. Therefore, the specific change will only become clear after it has happened. Hence progress markers may also be adjusted during the monitoring cycles or new progress markers may emerge.

Step 3: Monitoring an actor-based results framework

This section gives a brief overview of a selection (not comprehensive) of monitoring & evaluation (M&E) tools and approaches that have proven useful for advocacy initiatives. The different tools may be used together. Or they may be used on their own.

Option 1: Develop a learning-oriented monitoring and evaluation plan

The above-mentioned progress markers may be used to develop a practical and feasible M&E plan. This can be done with the Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation matrix shown below. The matrix specifies which monitoring information is needed by whom for what purpose, how and when this information will be collected and by who, how the monitoring information will be analyzed and how the analyzed information will feed learning and management. It is also important to ensure that M&E processes are aligned with management and learning cycles within the initiative (e.g,. alignment with reporting cycles and existing management meetings).

Example of a learning oriented monitoring and evaluation plan based on the actor focused theory of change, designed by the International Development Research Center in the context of a project on food security and climate change adaptation in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Option 2: Outcome journals

An outcome journal is a monitoring tool that can help the initiative or other stakeholders systematically document and analyze relevant changes they observe in relation to the progress markers of the initiative’s key actors. The diagram below shows an example of a generic outcome journal.

Example of progress markers included in an outcome journal from the Strengthening Rural Governance for the Right to Adequate Food program in Malawi (implemented by CISER and CISANET with support by WHH).

Such a journal usually lists the progress markers for a specific key actor. For each progress marker, it’s possible to provide information about the observed changes. An outcome journal usually also contains some learning questions that can facilitate a deeper analysis of the monitoring information (e.g., What is the significance of the observed change in relation to the initiative’s goal? To what extent has the initiative contributed to this change? What other factors or actors contributed to this change? Are there any adjustments that need to be made in the initiative planning? Were any unexpected changes (positive or negative) not foreseen by the progress markers?)

Option 3: Outcome harvesting

Outcome harvesting is an outcome-based method that makes it possible to retrospectively search for relevant changes (outcomes) that have occurred and to which the initiative may have contributed.

As is the case with outcome mapping, outcomes are understood as observable changes in the behavior, actions, policies, activities or practices of individuals, groups, organizations or institutions related to the vision of the initiative. The method can be used to monitor change in the various key actors that an initiative seeks to influence directly (in the sphere of influence) or indirectly (in the sphere of interest).

Outcome harvesting is done without predetermined indicators, and it may (or may not) examine the progress of the initiative with regards to the progress markers.

The full method is explained in the chapter on Outcome Harvesting in this toolbox.

Advantages and limitations of Outcome Mapping [2]


  • It prioritizes learning by examining incremental and often subtle changes of the initiative in order to increase an initiative’s effectiveness and progress towards the ultimate goal. The aim is not to monitor all elements of the initiative. Instead, it focuses on monitoring key actors’ behavior changes and the initiative’s strategies and organizational practices that contributed to them.

  • It recognizes that changes can occur beyond the scope of the initiative. It therefore avoids establishing a cause and effect relationship and does not attempt to claim the initiative contributed to the changes. Instead, it recognizes that multiple non-linear events lead to change and examines contribution of not only the initiative but also other actors, the environment, and the co-existence of different factors.

  • By acknowledging the contribution of various converging factors as drivers of change rather than seeking to attribute changes only to the initiative, the method promotes local ownership for the observed changes, necessary for long-term, sustainable changes. Additionally, the progress markers are not limited to a pre-defined timescale and may span beyond the lifetime of the initiative.


  • Outcome Mapping does not measure impact of the initiative as evidence of the initiative’s success. It assumes that an initiative is responsible for learning, for examining how and why impact occurs and for improving its strategies, rather than for creating linear attributable impact. However, the approach may be modified or complemented to include an external/further assessment.

  • Many donors require the use of a “logical framework analysis” (LFA) or “results based management” to plan and report activities of an initiative. It is possible to combine LFA with Outcome Mapping, although there is no one fixed way defining how the two tools should be integrated. [3]

  • Outcome Mapping requires a shift in mindset by the initiative’s members—and management who are flexible enough to be willing to depart from traditional monitoring methods.



[1] Sarah Earl, Fred Carden, and Terry Smutylo, Outcome Mapping: Building Learning and Reflection into Development Programs (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001),

[2] Earl, Carden, and Smutylo, Outcome Mapping.

[3] Kaia Ambrose, Sarah Earl, Daniel Roduner, and Ricardo Wilson-Grau, Outcome Mapping and the Logical Framework Approach: Can They Share a Space? (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, n.d.),


About the Authors:

Tereza Kaplan works at the intersection of human rights and public health, endeavoring to improve outcomes for vulnerable populations. With a background in law and public health, she has specialized in monitoring and evaluation of public service delivery and health outcomes. She started her career in the UK's public service before joining the non-governmental sector to operate in countries affected by emergencies and poverty. She is currently affiliated with Welthungerhilfe.

Jan Van Ongevalle leads the ‘global development’ research team at HIVA-KU Leuven in Belgium and has more than 25 years of experience as a development practitioner and researcher. Jan’s experience and interest is particularly situated around exploring participatory planning, monitoring and evaluation approaches that can foster learning and adaptive programming. His work is strongly influenced by the principles of collaborative action research.


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