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The Value of Visual Thinking: Map it Out!

I had a topic in mind around finances for this article – but the GrantZone community discussion around whiteboard use inspired me to share more about one of the best tools I know and use. A whiteboard or some large paper and Mind Mapping are a go-to for me – any time and for anything.


I figured out several years ago that ‘seeing' ideas and thoughts help me to find solutions, create products/programs/applications, and get me ‘unstuck'. As I'm sure you've all experienced, hurdles in any effort are no fun. Mapping everything out has been the best tool for me!
What is Mind Mapping?
Mind Mapping is a specific technique to visualize information and how different ideas/concepts relate to each other. It can be used for just about any idea, issue and so on. There are also no true rules around mind mapping. There is no right or wrong way for a mind map to look. They sometimes look like spider webs, family trees or as simple as circles that are connected.  Something like the image below might look familiar.

So, I use this for what?
When I first took on the role of an executive director over 4 years ago, I had to get a better handle on all aspects of the organization. I wanted to make sure that things weren't missed and be able to set priorities and make assignments as well. Between board reports, meetings, and other resources, I was able to get a big picture of all the facets of the organization.

As I brought on new staff and educated others about the organization, the mind map was extremely helpful.
See What Sticks
In my office, when were stuck on ideas or needed to think of ways to make something happen, we threw it up on the wall…. literally. New idea for membership marketing? Great! Write it on a large Post-It Note and hang it on the wall. We came back to the idea with ideas on how to make it work or added to in, in time for a committee meeting to float the idea past others. This system worked out great for launching new programs and member benefits.
In working with a friend to build out business ideas, we had to come up with new product lines and services. Before we mapped things out, we did a 5-minute brainstorm, listing out ideas with no discussion. From that list, we started mapping out based on priorities and business goals. At the end, we had a nice map of all the things we needed to do in the next six months.
Mind Mapping to show (fill in the blank) that it just won't work (or absolutely will).
We have all had a board member, program staff, well-meaning volunteer, or other stakeholder that has the next best idea for how we will secure a bigger audience, grant or donor. And from experience we know we don't have the resources to do such a task, be it time, money, or people. But they just don't see the big picture and insist we try. Mind mapping the ideas can be one way to show others how complex an idea really can be – for good or bad. It can help you see the bigger picture and how an idea can be possible or show someone just how onerous an idea will become.
In working with a committee, our volunteers were convinced that a social media campaign targeted toward the general public was going to bring in big dollars. This was an audience that was not a priority, the idea was far reaching and complex, and we simply didn't have the budget to do all that it would require to be successful. Staff and I took an hour (and a fair amount of coffee) and mapped out all the needs for the effort and sent them a picture of our notes below. This did two things: 1) showed them how much effort we do put into their ideas and 2) the idea just wasn't feasible when there are other priorities.

Analog or Digital?
As with many tools, there is always the great debate about going electronic or keeping things old school with paper and pen. My thought is you have to use what works best for you. I stay away from electronic because I think it is more time consuming to move things around and sometimes the software just simply doesn't let me do what pops in my head. Since this is the method that works best for me, I keep a stash of large, colorful papers, black chart markers, bright regular and dry erase markers, as well as a white board, of course. 
There are also many great mind mapping software programs available. I think they are useful when looking at more ‘linear' topics. They can be useful for building need statements or literature reviews. If you stick to digital calendars and a laptop for the creation of everything, a mind mapping software might be best for you. There are free versions out there to try out. If you have Power Point, you can also use that to create maps.
In the end, use what methods work best for you and use mapping as another tool in your grant success toolkit. Visuals can be powerful for not only telling a story but also more effective in the work you seek to do.

Ericka Harney is an 18-year veteran of the nonprofit and education sectors, fulfilling a passion for women and girl's success along the way. Ericka has served as an international representative for the US, raised millions in funds for great missions, and co-founded a social enterprise. She has been a contributing author for industry publications and a guest on several business blogs and podcasts. Ericka is sharing her knowledge and thrives on helping others at, a regular keynote and session speaker, finishing a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership, and continues a life mission of improving the soft skills of all professionals.