Theory of Change

Published September 14, 2016 by monika

You can’t work for long in impact assessment without coming across Theory of Change. So what exactly is it? And more importantly, is it useful?

A Theory of Change is a rather oddly named practical tool for helping you to build your strategy, to understand what you are doing and how exactly that will help you achieve your aims. Think of it like a big picture to do list for the organisation.

Step 1 is to state clearly what the desired long-term goals are. Then you work backwards from each aim, and work out what outcomes you need to have to achieve these aims. Each outcome can work like a stepping stone to help you get from where you are now, to achieving the long-term goals.

You need to know why and how each outcome will help you achieve those goals. What evidence do you have to know this?

From each outcome, you can plan what activity needs to take place to achieve that outcome. Is the activity necessary? Will it achieve the desired outcome? Will the outcome help to reach the long-term goal?

These steps will help you, and your staff to understand how activity leads to achievement and therefore what impact each of your daily activities has on your ultimate aims. It goes beyond outputs to help you understand your outcomes.

So why is this a good idea?

Many people will feel extremely busy at work. Busy all the time, but feel they don’t achieve enough. It could be that they need to work more efficiently, or it could be that they don’t understand the bigger picture. What your organisation is working towards? What the real goals are. This process helps you to map it out.

The very process of mapping it out, can identify areas where there is too little clarity, can identify areas where employees don’t actually agree with each other, can show you where confusion lies. Done well, this process can ensure that the whole staff team understand the reason the organisation exists, understand what success looks like, and have a clear pathway for getting there.

The process can make sure that your organisation is not suffering from mission-drift, or if this has occurred, how to focus again.

The process done well can make sure you go from a vague mission statement, to a clear strategy that everyone is invested in, to a practical map of what happens next. It is not a 50 page business strategy that sits in a drawer.

Why is it daunting?

As silly as it sounds, there are many organisations filled with people who don’t understand what it is they are trying to achieve, charities who are filled with people who are unable to explain what success looks like for them, people who measure outputs rather than outcomes and cannot explain why change is not forthcoming.

The idea of stripping away the safety net of ineffective working can be a scary thing to do individually, let alone organisationally.

There can be resistance to change at every level in an organisation, often borne out of the experience that change does not often equal improvement. A Theory of Change is not a restructure, but a way of proving that your organisation is delivering on what it has set out to do.

A word of caution:

The best Theory of Change systems are those that recognise the process cannot be linear. For organisations who are applying to trusts and foundations for funding for example, there are an increasing number of requests for the evaluation process to include a Theory of Change, which means understanding how to create one, how to use one, and how to ensure it’s a circular process that shows how you learn from it. The map you begin with may well show a linear progression of how you get from where you are to the identified goal, but you don’t stop there. Evaluation must be built in, so that you can identify the most successful steps in your process, and those that did not work so well. How can you improve?