What is the theory of change? Learn the meaning and how you can formulate a theory of change that will help you achieve long-term goals and ultimate impact as a group.
In the modern dynamic world, change is constant. Change is inevitable, and as they say, ‘if you don’t change, change will change you.’ There is a need to embrace change more than anything to remain on track in the long run. This piece elaborates how developing a theory of change will make you thrive in whatever you do.
Whether you’re a company, philanthropist, government agency or not-for-profit organization that desire to achieve social, political or business change, formulating a theory of change is vital.
But how do you start? First, let’s understand what the theory of change is.
Table of Contents
What is the Theory of Change (ToC)?
The theory of change is a concept that describes and explains intervention activities that an organization undertakes that contributes to a chain of outcomes. These activities can either be policy creation, starting a program or a project that brings about an impact.
The ToC framework helps illustrate why a specific way of doing things will be effective and the changes that will happen in the short, medium, and long term. ToC is represented in a flow chart, diagram or pictorial graphic showing why the intervention activities (initiatives) you participate in will bring about the change you want to see.
ToC identifies the:
- Resources needed
- The main activities you’ll need to get involved in
- The end products/services or outputs that you’ll need to deliver.
- All the step changes or, rather, outcomes needed to occur to achieve your long-term mission or goal.
What is the Paradoxical Theory of Change?
This theory suggests that change occurs when a person becomes aware of whom they are, the natural outcome is change and growth in an organic, orderly and meaningful way.
Such contact and genuine self-knowledge occur to a person when they become what they are and not when they try to be what they aren’t.
What is the Theory of Social Change?
For most societies, going through some changes is inevitable, but the reason it occurs isn’t obvious. Though in most cases, the change is not instantaneous and is often gradual.
Most societies go through various kinds of change at some point. If you look at the current society, you’ll realize it looks nothing close to what it was hundreds of years ago.
For decades, sociologists have grappled with different models and ideas. They define change as a transformation of institutions, functions, and cultures.
There are numerous forces and parts at work, most of which resist change and want to remain in their status quo. When looking at the types of theory of change, social theory of change comprises of three distinct theories – evolutionary, conflict, and functionalist.
What is the Difference Between the Theory of Change and the Logic Model?
Theory of Change vs Logic Model
There is a thin line between the theory of change model and the logic model. While both fulfill similar purposes and have similar benefits, ToC goes deeper and creates extra benefits that the logic model can’t.
A logic model is a graphical representation of how an intervention activity creates outcomes. While this is the same thing as the theory of change, the logic model only explains what will happen but not why it will happen. The logic model has different design and terms.
Both models identify activities, inputs, enablers, outcomes and impact. However, the ToC model creates causal pathways as it attempts to establish the causes of change.
Theory of Change Model
What is the theory of change model?
Well, the theory of Change explains the change process by highlighting the causal linkages in an initiative. It outlines what will happen in the short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes. You map the changes you’ve come up with as the ‘outcomes pathway’, giving a logical relationship of each outcome to all the others in their chronological flow.
These ‘outcomes pathways’ are diagrammatically represented to show the logical relationship between one outcome and another. These associations between outcomes are described by ‘rationales’ or statements showing why a particular outcome is thought to be a precondition of another.
In other words, a theory of change is a macro that means ‘if this is done, then these are the expected results. Therefore, early outcomes must come before intermediate outcomes are achieved. And then, intermediate outcomes must be in place for the long-term outcomes to occur and so on.
Therefore, an outcome’s pathway represents the change logic, in relation to its underlying set of assumptions, clearly spelled out in the statements/ rationales specified for why there’s a connection between outcomes and the TOC narrative.
How do You Develop a Theory of Change?
Applying the TOC Model
Developing a theory of change involves planning, implementation and evaluation of input, output and outcome. In simple terms, the five mains stages of change theory include:
Stage 1: Identify a goal (long, medium and short)
This step involves discussing, agreeing on, and getting specific about the goals that you want to achieve. When putting together a ToC, you must clearly define what you desire to achieve.
You can have one or more than one goal. Coming to an agreement or consensus with all the stakeholders at this point is essential. Having clear goals helps you be explicit about the kinds of change you believe in or hope to achieve.
Stage 2: Perform Backward Mapping to identify the Preconditions Essential to Achieve the Goal(s)
Once you identify the goal, the next step is to identify the preconditions necessary to achieve that goal. This can be achieved through backward mapping to identify the necessary prerequisites.
Stage 3: Identify the Interventions
This step involves coming up with intervention activities that will help bring about the changes desired. If it’s a business, the stakeholders identify what they will do to achieve the goal they want.
Stage 4: Develop Indicators for each outcome and preconditions
At this point, there is a need to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the initiative you’ll undertake.
Stage 5: Write the Narrative
The final step of TOC is putting it in text and visual representations. Therefore, you describe the programs and summarize the initiative story from the beginning with the background and goals. Explain why these are crucial and how the initiative activities will help achieve those goals.
What are the Components of a ToC Narrative?
- Background – This is the explanation of the context and the need
- Long-term Goal(s)- These represent the final outcome that you desire to achieve
- Outcomes/ Preconditions – These includes descriptions of goals and how they are essential for themselves and for the ultimate goal
- Interventions – They include the initiatives programs and activities
- Assumptions and Justifications – The reasons or facts behind an initiatives features
- Indicators – This represents the description of how each outcome will be measured
- Program Logic – The understanding that guides each initiative step.
Theory of Change in Process and Action
How do you measure change? To determine a ToC model success, you need to demonstrate the progress that will help achieve outcomes. Having proof of success confirms the ToC and shows the effectiveness of the initiative.
Therefore, to measure the outcomes in a ToC model, you need to have indicators. Every outcome of an initiative should have at least one indicator.
These indicators help operationalize the outcomes. In other words, they help make the outcomes understandable, observable and concrete. To clarify the relationship of the indicator to the outcome, you can say, “I’ll know that I have achieved when I see this”.
A theory of change example is, “I’ll prove that teenage moms in our program clearly understand the prenatal nutrition and health guiding principles when I see that they can identify the foods rich in nutrients.”
Resources unavailability sometimes makes it hard to have the indicators. Thus, most groups want to label priority outcomes that they know will need to be measured if the ToC is going to hold.
Monitoring and Evaluation
ToC remains a valuable method of conducting evaluations of different project types and organizations. Monitoring questions help focus your evaluation efforts on critical concerns by helping choose the indicators that will be most helpful.
An example of monitoring questions is “What must we know to manage grant-making focused on the specific outcome achievement?
Success should be understood beyond the point of knowing ‘what works.’ If you scale an intervention blindly, it will backfire. Therefore, monitoring and evaluation help collect sufficient understanding and knowledge to predict with confidence how a particular initiative will work in different situations or if there is a need to adjust it to achieve similar or better results.
Also, there is a need to combine that with evidence from studies and reports to build a stronger case of what’s happening, how it’s happening and how the context influences the initiative.
A ToC-based monitoring and evaluation system should be designed in a participatory manner, just like the development of ToC. For instance, grant managers can select the outcomes that interest them the most in their decision-making. Similarly, other participants on the ground can have input into the indicators to use and ways to operationalize them, the choice of data collection methods and instruments, and which existing data sources may come in handy in tracking indicators.
The ToC innovation lies in:
- Establishing the difference between the desired and actual outcomes
- Calling for the stakeholders to model their desired outcomes prior to deciding the forms of intervention needed to attain those outcomes.
Quality Control Criteria
Anne Kubisch, a thought leader of the theory of change, identified three quality control criteria including:
This refers to the credibility or the logic of the ‘outcomes pathway’. So, the questions to ask include, ‘Does the ToC model make sense?’ ‘Are the outcomes in the right order?’ Are each pre-conditions necessary, and are they collectively enough to attain the long-term outcomes and make an impact? Or Are there gaps in the logic?
This refers to the practicability of the initiative and finding out whether they can realistically attain their long-term impact or outcomes. Does the group have sufficient resources? Does it need help or partnerships? Does the expectation, scope or timeline of the ToC require adjustment?
This simply refers to indicators. Are these indicators measurable and solid? Will they result in enough information to evaluate the initiative’s success clearly? And, are they convincing enough to the right audience?
See related: What is Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)?
What are the Benefits of Theory of Change?
ToC main benefit is to make different views and assumptions regarding the change process explicit. With a perfect ToC, you can specify how to make a wide variety of conditions to help programs deliver on the desired outcome.
That includes coming up with the right kind of alliances, specific technical assistance, forums types, tools & processes that help people collaborate and be result-focused. This helps all the key stakeholders to debate on them, enrich them to make project design and implementation stronger.
ToC helps emphasize the need for dialogue with participants recognizing different viewpoints and acknowledging power relations as well as social, political and environmental realities in the context.
When you have a complete ToC, you’ll have a:
- Graphical representation of the change you want to see in your society or company and how you anticipate it to occur.
- A testable and clear hypothesis of the change process that allows you to be accountable and makes your results more solid since they were forecasted to occur in a given way.
- An evaluation blueprint with measurable indicators of success recognized.
- A potent communication tool to detail your initiatives complexity
- Participants or stakeholders agree about what defines success and everything it takes to achieve it.
According to Turner, the benefits of ToC include:
- Being able to explain and precisely predict phenomena
- Help explain actions and decisions to others
- Compare and contrast varying experiences
- Help acknowledge, understand and describe new situations
- Help pinpoint gaps in our research and knowledge.
What are the Potential Limitations of ToC?
According to different schools of thought, the Toc is associated with several potential challenges. Opponents suggest that:
- A theoretical perspective that can be dogmatic in certain situations. There are no uniform methods and approaches necessary to implement it effectively.
- A specific client become a fascinating subject for study
- It makes you lose sight of the importance of the client’s self-determination
- It makes you see different experiences through the lens of a single theoretical perspective
- The potential social and political attributes related to specific theoretical perspectives.
What are the Uses of ToC?
The ToC model is used as a:
- As a framework to help stay on course and check milestones
- To keep the evaluation and implementation process transparent so that all participants know and understand what is happening as well as why
- To document all the lessons learnt about what really occurs
- As a basis for reporting to donors, boards and policymakers.