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Theory of Change

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Explaining Theory of Change

A Theory of Change is a specific and measurable description of a social change that forms the basis for planning, ongoing decision-making and evaluation.

Theory of change encourages you to reflect on your goals and plans (your strategy), to discuss them with others and to make sure they’re clearly understood.

A theory of change is an interpretation of what we believe – but based on evidence and experience – expressing the likely course of change.

It can be represented in a change map (a visual representation of the change you want to see and how you expect it to come about), as a narrative (a spoken or written account of connected events; a story), or both.

There is no single definition or methodology for theory of change, it is both a thinking process and a product so the process of developing a strategy is as useful as the strategy itself.

The different ways to use Theory of Change

A theory of change can be developed at the beginning of a piece of work to help with planning or to describe an existing piece of work. It can be created at organisational level (describing your strategy and plans), programme or project level.

There are a number of ways you can use theory of change:

  • A process and tool to build shared understanding: A theory of change is an agreement among those you are working with about what defines success and what it takes to get there. Creating a theory of change together with stakeholders can help to align thoughts and develop consensus on your organisational purpose. This tool can also aid in aligning team members to the larger end goal, and help them understand their role in achieving it.
  • Tool and output for communications: Theory of change allows you to clearly and succinctly let others know what your organisation, project or programme is trying to achieve and how you are going about it. It can provide a way to summarise the complexity and bring clarity to it. Theory of change maps and narratives are very useful for communicating with others about your work.
  • A planning tool for new work: Theory of change breaks down broad, long-term changes into a series of smaller changes at different levels to understand how they are linked. Theory of change helps to clearly articulate and connect your work to your bigger goal, and allows you to spot potential risks in your plan by sharing the underlying assumptions in each step.
  • A tool and process to help you guide existing work: In large organisations, when there may be several projects running simultaneously, theory of change helps to map these different projects first and then consider how they link and relate to each other.
  • A tool to help you to evaluate, learn and improve: Theory of change helps you identify what you will measure to understand whether the changes are happening, how and for whom. You are planning for impact when drafting your theory of change.

Your Theory of Change process

Before you start be clear about:

  • how the theory of change will support your work and how you will use it
  • the level of detail you require
  • how you will get buy-in.

Your process will depend on:

  • how much power you want to distribute
  • how transparent and inclusive you can make the process
  • how open you are to new potential ideas and solutions to your cause

If you are using your theory of change to plan new work you will need to involve key decision-makers in your organisation. You may also want to include other groups, such as your wider staff group and the people and communities you work with.

Read more about this in our guidance on involving people in developing your strategy.

How to build a Theory of Change

The steps to build a theory of change:

  1. Agree the long-term intended impact (the big long-term change you want to see)
  2. Map outcomes (the real changes resulting from your activities) backwards, thinking of them as necessary pre-conditions
  3. Identify activities (the things we do - our services, products, campaigns etc) necessary to achieve outcomes
  4. Identify assumptions (enablers and risks underlying your theory) to interrogate your theory. At this stage, you identify key assumptions you have made between the work delivered and the difference you want to make, and about the overall rationale and context.
  5. Establish a timeline and plan resources
  6. Produce a diagram and narrative

If you and your colleagues don’t have expertise in Theory of Change and facilitation, you may consider accessing training or consultancy support. it may be helpful to involve an external consultant.

Using a consultant also means that all staff can participate in Theory of Change development workshops (rather than facilitating them).

A consultant can also bring a helpful external perspective, although they may need briefing and support to understand your organisation’s work.

Last reviewed: 04 July 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 04 July 2022

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