Tips & Tools for Network Instigators: Actor Mapping

In their book, Networks for Social Impact, Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper provide tips and tools on the best ways to set up a network. When creating a network, it is essential that all major actors–relevant leaders, organizations, and existing collaborations–are included in the network. If a critical actor is left out of the network, this results in 1) the duplication of service efforts by both the network and the separate actor, 2) unnecessary competition between the network and separate actors, 3) late absorption of these missing actors into the network, and 4) adjustment and reevaluation of projects and goals after these actors have been absorbed.

Actor mapping combats these challenges by working to scan the environment for all actors or key parties related to the network prior to forming the network. This scan ensures that actors that should be involved in a network are involved in a network. 

In this blog, we unpack our second tool: Actor Mapping 

What does Actor Mapping look like?

The process of creating an actor map usually involves two or three meetings of at least two hours. This time increases with the number of actors involved in the recruitment process. During these meetings, five general steps are taken:

An example of a complete Actor Map:


This Actor Map addresses the larger social issue of “Improving The Lives of Community Youth” which is placed in the center circle. Fanning out from the social issue are the significant dimensions of the problem: Care and Education, Health and Safety, Employment, etc. The influential roles, settings, and organizational actors are on sticky notes with more influential entities closer to the center circle. Lines are drawn between entities with existing collaborations. Finally, circles indicate groups of actors that form commonly understood areas of influence. 

We have a complete Actor Map! What are the next steps?

With a complete Actor Map, network instigators can now begin to develop collaborations for their organization. Network instigators have several options:

  • Focus in on only one segment of the map at first to define the problem more narrowly
  • Recruit actors towards the center of the map to create a network with the most influential actors
  • Identify existing networks that could include currently disconnected relevant actors

Overall, the Actor Map provides a helpful jumping-off point that allows network instigators to be more informed about the actors relevant to the social issue at hand. Actor mapping ensures that all proper stakeholders are involved in the network, and this tool helps network instigators to properly set up a network and encourage its’ long-term success.