Most charities and not for profit organisations exist to bring about change in some way. Change for individuals, for societies, or for the world at large. Bringing about those changes often involves working within complex systems and for long periods of time.
Theory of Change is an increasingly popular tool for organisations to describe how they believe that change happens, and to help focus their work on achieving their long-term goals.
In essence, an organisation’s Theory of Change describes how it believes it makes a difference. It should clearly link inputs and activities to outcomes and to achieving the organisation’s overall goals. (It is usually expressed as a diagram with an accompanying narrative that explains the model.)
The diagrammatic element can be as simple as the Fiver example below.
Although often thought of as a relatively new approach, Theory of Change has its origins over fifty years ago. Experts trace it back to the late 1950s and Kirkpatrick’s ‘Four Levels of Learning Evaluation Model’. In the 1960s, Programme Theory approaches began to call on planners to clearly articulate the links between inputs and outcomes, and how their programmes were intended to work. Logical Frameworks, or Log Frames, very familiar to the International Development community in particular, are part of this same Programme Theory family.
Kirkpatrick and Programme Theorists were primarily concerned with Evaluation. But there is an equally long history of debate and exploration about what brings about social change and how that influences organisations’ approaches.
In the 1990s the Aspen Institute began to focus on the challenge of evaluating complex community or social change programmes when it’s not clear what they have set out to do or how they intended to do it. It set-up a Roundtable on community change to look at this issue. It was Carol Weiss, a member of the Roundtable’s steering group, who popularised the term ‘Theory of Change’. She asserted that people give too little attention to the early and intermediate changes that need to happen for long-term change to occur. This is because they are not clear about how they expect change to come about. She used ‘Theory of Change’ as a term to describe the links between interventions and outcomes, and the chain of steps that lead to achieving the long-term goal.
There’s no universally agreed definition of what constitutes a Theory of Change. If you hear someone refer to ‘Theory of Change’ today, they can mean a number of things.
Organisations choose to develop a theory of change for a number of reasons.
When developing strategy – Theory of Change helps people focus on the organisation’s purpose and overall goal. They can use it as way to identify what needs to happen for that goal to be reached, rather than starting from, and maybe getting too caught up in, current activities.
Defining their place in a sector – When considering a system or sector as a whole, Theory of Change can help an individual organisation define its place in it. This can involve identifying where it can play a role that is different to other actors. It can help to identify other organisations to cooperate with. And it can highlight where there is a need to influence others to play a particular part.
For Measurement & Evaluation – A Theory of Change explicitly articulates the causal pathway that will lead to the end goal. This enables organisations to identify the key things that they have to measure. Where the change process takes place over an extended time frame, and so you will not be able to measure the end result for some time, knowing the contributing activities makes it easier to identify lead indicators that show whether or not you are making progress.
To ensure a shared understanding – Often, different stakeholders in an organisation have different understandings of how an organisation is trying to make a difference. They might not even agree on the difference the organisation is trying to make. The process of developing a Theory of Change involves discussion and decision about these issues. The final Theory of Change results in a clear articulation that can be shared and understood by all.
To communicate with funders – For some organisations, the initial reason for developing a Theory of Change is that a funder requires one. Whether or not its development is funder-driven, a Theory of Change can be a powerful way to show why an organisation is doing what it does, and the difference it will make. We have found that it can be a valuable complement to the traditional case for support when making approaches to funders and major donors.
Know Violence asked =mc to work with them to articulate their Theory of Change. Know Violence is an India-based agency working globally to end violence in childhood.
They wanted the Theory of Change to fulfil three main roles:
Know Violence is a global learning initiative, and has been set up on a model that has previously been used successfully to address other issues. The team therefore had a very clear picture of the assumptions and evidence that underpinned their approach. We worked with the key internal stakeholders in a number of sessions over about a month to clearly articulate what they were setting out to do and how they would go about achieving it.
We began from their end goal – that children experience wellbeing, freedom from fear, and improved quality of life; and that there are improved intergenerational outcomes with overall levels of violence reduced.
From there we worked backwards to establish what was necessary for that to be a reality. We established that achieving the relevant Sustainable Development Goals8 was key, and that in order to achieve those goals, national governments need to have violence prevention strategies, supported by financial investment and strong monitoring and evaluation. Ensuring that happens requires that policy makers understand the benefits of prevention-based approaches and have information to implement effective violence prevention strategies.
We continued mapping backwards. Know Violence is a limited-life initiative, so one key element was that they establish forums that will continue to drive this work after the initiative ends. Influencing policy makers requires evidence, so the development of evidence-based understanding is a key part of the Theory of Change, culminating in the publishing of a Global Report. But evidence is of little use unless it is disseminated, understood and embraced. This means that the dissemination of the report, work with the international community to improve understanding of violence prevention, and work with the media, are all essential elements of the Theory of Change.
Because Know Violence is a limited-life initiative it was particularly important to establish what elements of the Theory of Change they are directly accountable for, and what elements will be the responsibility of others. To demonstrate this, we added an accountability line to the diagram. We also decided it would be useful to include the time periods for the different stages of work. These are shown on the left side of the diagram. Know Violence is not working in isolation, so on the right of the diagram we show the other actors involved.
The Theory of Change diagram went through several iterations. We and the Know Violence team clarified plans, challenged assumptions, and finally streamlined the diagram, so that it clearly expresses the Theory of Change. We also produced an accompanying narrative, and finally an accompanying Monitoring & Evaluation framework.
Know Violence is now using the Theory of Change to help it secure funding and to guide the delivery, monitoring and evaluation of this important project.
Below is an edited version of the Theory of Change developed.
Theory of Change is unlikely to be a tool that you use in isolation. Often you will be using it alongside other tools for planning, strategy development, and monitoring & evaluation.
One comment we have heard is that it can be challenging to identify what the organisation needs to do to put their Theory of Change into action. We’ve found that combing a Theory of Change with a Strategy Map and Balanced Scorecard is a helpful way to address this challenge.
In a similar way to a Theory of Change, a Strategy Map is a systematic articulation of how you will go about reaching your organisation’s end goals. The Strategy Map looks at this question from four specific perspectives – stakeholders, capacities, learning & growth, and resources. If we think of your Theory of Change as describing what needs to happen for change to take place, the Strategy Map captures how your organisation will put that into effect.
=mc has used the Strategy Map approach with a wide variety of types and sizes of organisations to help them develop and implement their strategy.
If you have developed a Theory of Change then you will already have identified your goals and what you need to achieve for your beneficiaries. The Strategy Map then helps you to identify what you need to do internally as an organisation in order to make that happen. What processes do you need to excel at, how do you need to improve your human capital and what resources do you need to support it all?
The Scorecard sits alongside the Strategy Map. It captures the lead and lag indicators and the targets you have set for success. In addition to the indicators you have identified in your Theory of Change, you will identify lead and lag indicators for the other perspectives. This will mean you can track how they are progressing and identify how that progress might be impacting the results you expected to see in your Theory of Change.
The Strategy Map and Scorecard are complemented by an implementation plan. This sets out what will be done when, and who is responsible for it. The interventions you identified in your Theory of Change will be part of this implementation plan. But just as importantly so will the internal interventions that are needed for the other perspectives so that your Theory of Change can happen.
=mc has helped significant numbers of international and UK charities develop powerful integrated strategies using Theory of Change, Strategy Maps and other approaches. These plans have helped to transform work and income. Find out more about the balanced scorecard.
There are a number of other resources that explore Theory of Change that you might find useful:
www.theoryofchange.org is the website of the Center for Theory of Change. This is a non-profit organisation established to promote quality standards and best practice for the development and implementation of Theory of Change, with a particular focus on its use and application in the areas of international development, sustainability, education, human rights and social change. The website includes examples of Theories of Change from a variety of organisations, and a free software tool to help you develop a Theory of Change diagram.
For those interested in International Development, DFID and Comic Relief have both produced reports on the use of Theory of Change. These can both be found here.
Grantcraft, an initiative of the US-based Foundation Center, for funders worldwide, has a number of useful resources on its website looking at the use of Theories of Change by funders