The following list is a work in progress of the terms we use and how and when we use them. The actual terms are only important to ensure consistent usage. This guide is intended to help you develop your own way of talking about your initiative’s theory, or to clarify the terms we use so you can use them more effectively. Not surprisingly, these terms are usually best understood in action, so please read our guided example to see how these terms and TOC can be applied to your initiative.
We welcome any comments about additional terms to add, or further clarification needed.
[A – M] [N – Z]
Conditions or resources that your group believes are needed for the success of your program, and that you believe already exist and will not be problematic. An assumption like a precondition is a condition that is necessary for your program’s success. Unlike a precondition, it already is in place and does not need to be brought about. When your group states your assumptions, it is a good time to take into account the various conditions that your program’s success will rely on. Assumptions are crucial because if they are incorrect it can completely alter how your program works.
The process of beginning with your long-term goal and working “backwards” toward the earliest changes that need to occur. This is the opposite of how we usually think about planning, because it starts with asking “what preconditions must exists for the long-term outcome to be reached?” rather than starting with the question: “What can we do to bring the outcome about?” a questions that comes later.
Core Planning Group
The team of stakeholders who will be responsible for development of the theory. This group should know development of the theory. This group should know the process, plan and facilitate meetings, summarize and represent the information produced at the meetings so it can be brought back to the larger group, and ensure that all the components of the theory are completed and solid. This is too much work for one person, so we recommend that a team of 2-4 people who act as “guardians” of the process.
The person who runs the meetings. We strongly recommend at least two facilitators at each meeting, since a lot has to be taken down. The facilitator(s) is responsible for asking the right questions to make sure that all the pieces of the theory are articulated.
Measurable evidence of meeting a goal. Indicators are visible signs, (e.g. reading scores, attendance) that demonstrate that the outcomes are achieved. Often, indicators can be counted (quantitative), but sometimes evidence will be something more descriptive (qualitative). Each indicator needs to have four components: population, target, threshold and timeline. These answer the questions: Who or what is to reach this goal? (population) How many of that group do we need to have reach the goal? (target) What level needs to reached — how good is good enough?) (threshold) By when does this goal need to be reached? (timeline)
Sometimes the achievement of two (or more) outcomes at the same level will have an impact on each other. For example, if parents being motivated to read to their children and parents being literate are both preconditions required for parents to read to their children more, there may also be an interaction in that as parents become more motivated to read they may also undertake to become more literate, or as parents take literacy classes, they may see the value of reading and become more motivated. In the theory, we represent this graphically with a sideways arrow.
The things your program or group of stakeholders will undertake to bring about outcomes. Sometimes people use the term strategy or activity. We use strategy to describe the overall focus of the initiative, and activity to describe all the specific actions that make up an intervention. So, for example, an intervention might be “hold literacy classes” and the various activities needed to make that happen would be things like identifying space and teachers, choosing a curriculum, screening students, etc. We indicate where an intervention is needed to bring about an outcome with a dashed arrow leading from one outcome to another.
Statements about why we expect one set of outcomes to lead to another. Why are the preconditions necessary for the outcome to be achieved? Justifications are often based on research, but may also come from past experience, common sense, or knowledge of the specific context.
The goal you want to reach which is the purpose of your program; for example, academic achievement for youth, or employment for a certain group. All other outcomes on your framework are preconditions to this outcome.
A summary of your theory that explains the pathways of change, highlights some of your major assumptions, justifications and interventions, and presents a compelling case as to how and why your initiative expects to make a difference. The narrative may also contain some information that is additional to what is in your theory, such as your overall vision, the history of how your initiative came to be, and some community context. The purpose of the narrative is twofold: (1) to convey the major elements of your theory easily and quickly to others; (2) to better understand how the elements of the theory work as a whole. We usually recommend that narrative shouldnÃ¢t be more than one or two pages.
An outcome is a state, or condition, that must exist for your initiative to work and does not currently exist. An outcome may represent a change in a group of people, organizations, or places. Outcomes are the building blocks of your Theory of Change. Except for the long-term outcome, all outcomes on your change framework are also preconditions which are necessary for other outcomes.
The visual depiction of the pathway of outcomes, in which they are placed in sequence showing which outcomes are preconditions of other outcomes. This is the first component you will complete in developing your theory.
The entity (some common examples are groups of people, organizations or places) your initiative seeks to have an impact on, e.g. students in a certain school, parents, residents of a certain neighborhood. This is one component of an indicator.
All outcomes, except the long-term outcome, are also preconditions. They are called preconditions because they are conditions that must exist in order for the next outcome in the pathway to be achieved. You can think of them as precursors because they must be achieved before the next outcome in the pathway, and as requirements for the accomplishment of the next outcome.
The extent to which your theory attempts to account for all the factors necessary to reach your long-term outcome. Different scopes are appropriate for different purposes. In general, each group must decide the “breadth” of its scope — how many of all the possible pathways for change will you identify, and the “depth” of its scope — how many levels of preconditions will your pathway have which shows all the steps to reach the goal.
How many of your population you expect will change based on your initiative. For example, do you expect 80% of students in a school to improve in some way? Or do you expect to find jobs for 100 residents? As with all components of indicators, your target for your long-term outcome should be set by combining your vision for change with a realistic assessment of your resources. Targets for all other outcomes should be based on how many people need to change in order for it to be enough for the next outcome in the pathway to occur. For example, if only 20 people take a literacy class, would you be able to raise overall literacy rates in your community by the amount you want?
Theory of Change
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.
How much does your target group need to change? Simply put, “how good is good enough”? For example, if students improve reading scores by one grade, is that sufficient? Or how many sessions must participants attend of a class or workshop to attain the skill being taught? Again, as with the target and timeline, how much change is determined by how much you believe is needed to reach the next outcome.
By when does the outcome need to be reached at the level (threshold) and for the number of people you have specified? The timeline for reaching any given outcome depends on the timeline for reaching the outcomes above and below it on the pathway. So, for example, if residents will not have completed a literacy class until the end of the year, it is unrealistic to expect to see an increase in literacy rates in a shorter timeline. Likewise, if the long-term outcome is that parents read to their children within three years, you can work backwards to determine by when they need to have increased literacy and motivation.
Often, a group has a vision of change which is beyond, or grander, than they can achieve through the initiative, but they believe the initiative contributes to this vision. When that is the case, we put a dotted line above the long-term outcome (e.g. stable employment) and have an ultimate goal (e.g. end of poverty in the community). Your group will not hold itself accountable for this goal, but may like to keep it visible as a reminder of your vision for the community and what you hope your project contributes to, beyond the concrete goal you will hold yourself accountable for.