What is Theory of Change?

As we define it, a Theory of Change defines all building blocks required to bring about a given long-term goal. This set of connected building blocks–interchangeably referred to as outcomes, results, accomplishments, or preconditions is depicted on a map known as a pathway of change/change framework, which is a graphic representation of the change process.

Built around the pathway of change, a Theory of Change describes the types of interventions (a single program or a comprehensive community initiative) that bring about the outcomes depicted in the pathway of a change map. Each outcome in the pathway of change is tied to an intervention, revealing the often complex web of activity that is required to bring about change.

A Theory of Change would not be complete without an articulation of the assumptions that stakeholders use to explain the change process represented by the change framework. Assumptions explain both the connections between early, intermediate and long term outcomes and the expectations about how and why proposed interventions will bring them about. Often, assumptions are supported by research, strengthening the case to be made about the plausibility of theory and the likelihood that stated goals will be accomplished.

Stakeholders value theories of change as part of program planning and evaluation because they create a commonly understood vision of the long-term goals, how they will be reached, and what will be used to measure progress along the way.

A Theory of Change is a specific and measurable description of a social change initiative that forms the basis for strategic planning, on-going decision-making and evaluation. The methodology used to create a Theory of Change is also usually referred to a Theory of Change, or the Theory of Change approach or method. So, when you hear or say “Theory of Change”, you may mean either the process or the result.

Like any good planning and evaluation method for social change, it requires participants to be clear on long-term goals, identify measurable indicators of success, and formulate actions to achieve goals.

It differs from any other method of describing initiatives in a few ways:

  • it shows a causal pathway from here to there by specifying what is needed for goals to be achieved (e.g. you might argue that children attending school a minimum number of days is necessary if they are going to learn).
  • it requires you to articulate underlying assumptions which can be tested and measured.
  • it changes the way of thinking about initiatives from what you are doing to what you want to achieve and starts there.

A Theory of Change provides a roadmap to get you from here to there. If it is good and complete, your roadmap can be read by others and show that you know how to chart your course. This is helpful with constituents, staff, partners organizations and funders.

More importantly, if it is good and complete, you have the best chance of making the change in the world you set out to make and of demonstrating your successes and your lessons along the way.