What is Theory of Change?
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 as Theory of Change, or the Theory of Change approach or method. So, when you hear “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.
A Theory of Change can be the basis for a Results Framework and can easily be created from a Logframe to do a gap analysis.
Everybody is using the term “Theory of change”. Do they mean the same thing?
No. Pretty much anyone using the term means that the initiative has a belief about how it works. But the similarity may end there. Some people have a one sentence “theory”, such as “youth need safe physical and psychological environments in order to learn”. Partly because of the inconsistency in usage, we developed this site to help you develop a theory with the necessary level of detail, that shows the necessary conditions needed for change, your activities, benchmarks of short, medium and long-term goals, indicators of success and underlying beliefs and assumptions.
Why do all this hard work? We know what our mission is and we already have a series of strategies that our Board and funder like, so what would we get out of having a “theory”?
Mission statements are necessarily rather vague, because they need to be short. They typically express the overall philosophy of a project and its purpose. They do NOT explain how to get where you want to go: they are not a roadmap.
TOC works for initiatives that are already up and running as a check on the match between the strategies the initiative uses, and its ability to meet its goals. It can help you determine if your resources are having the impact you want, and show you specific areas where you may need to make mid-course corrections.
Why has the “Theory of change” Approach become so popular”?
Because funders have become very concerned about community buy-in and about accountability. Those are two of the reasons. By asking initiatives they fund to have theories of change they are asking them to show and justify how exactly they plan to meet their goals, and to agree on what will be considered success. Also, the developing a theory usually implies getting numerous stakeholders to the table, and funders have learned that initiatives that the community or key stakeholders do not support are not likely to produce outcomes. And many funders are interested in building the capacity of the community as a goal in addition to any other desired outcomes.
Be careful when someone tells you they have a theory of change, or a funder asks for one, that you know what THEY mean.
How do we know when to Stop? How far should our theory go?
A key to making the process the most useful and appropriate to an organization’s needs is to determine the “scope” of the theory. (See the “Theory of Change Technical Papers”by D. Taplin, H. Clark, E. Collins and D. Colby, under Resources: Publications on this website for more information). Sometimes, it is necessary to have a very “broad” theory: that is, account for every precondition for your long-term goal, and sometimes its important to have a “deep” theory: work a pathway that your initiative will be working on all the back to the very first step needed. Other times, e.g. for evaluation, you may only need to model what you are doing in a summary form. That will allow evaluation of key outcomes, but not provide enough detail for programmatic decision-making. How far to go is always a prime consideration when undertaking theory construction.
How long will it take to develop A theory?
There is no one answer, but it is not something that can be done in a few hours or a few days. There are a few steps, and a lot of details. Being specific is one of the things that makes a theory useful, and it takes time for a group to agree on what they mean every step of the way. Some groups have weekly or regular meetings over a few months. This works best when a core team take responsibility for putting all the information together in between meetings to present back to the participants.