A Short Introduction to Theory of Change

by Ian David Moss 1mo11th Oct 20193 min readNo comments

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(Cross-posted from LinkedIn.)

At the heart of any strategy are two questions: what do we want to accomplish? And how are we going to do it?

In many situations, answering these questions might not seem difficult. We may already have a mission statement or set of values that guides all of our actions, addressing the first question. Likewise, we may already have a plan of action in place, a set of activities that seems to match the goals we’ve set out. Problem, meet solution. Done and done.

As intuitive as it is to imagine the beginning and the end of that process, though, all too often the devil is in the details—or more specifically in this case, all of the pesky steps in between. Figuring out what those ought to be takes real work, and is generally not something that can be done in one’s head. And because it takes work, a lot of times we don’t bother to do it.

Fortunately, there is a tool called theory of change that provides a means of figuring out all the steps. A theory of change is a visual depiction of your strategy. You probably already have a notion in your head of what your strategy is, but a theory of change gives you a means of articulating that strategy in a form of a diagram.

Why would you want to do this? Making your theory of change explicit accomplishes several things:

  • Developing a theory of change is a great way to get big questions about program or organizational strategy out in the open. In some cases, these questions might not have ever been considered before, or they’ve been thought about but never discussed among the team.
  • A finished theory of change diagram is a useful shorthand for explaining the mechanics of how a program works to someone who’s not that familiar with it. It’s not a marketing document, but it is a communication tool for people who want to understand your strategy in depth.
  • Theories of change are great for helping you decide what to measure. What information is most important for your program or organization to have? Are there any assumptions underlying your success that seem especially vulnerable or uncertain? Does the theory of change show that certain objectives have to be met before any others are possible? If so, you might want to focus measurement or tracking efforts on those objectives or assumptions.
  • Walking through a theory of change with new staff members can be a great way to get them up to speed quickly on the “big picture,” and not just the details that they need to focus on day to day. A theory of change in this context can be particularly effective at showing staff how their work fits into a larger plan.
  • Many funders are accustomed to working with theories of change and logic models, and including a theory of change with a grant proposal can communicate that you speak their language and have thought seriously about how a program works.

Nearly all theories of change contain the following fundamental elements. In combination, they describe a linear, causal pathway between programs or policy interventions and an aspirational end-state.

  • Activities are actions or strategies undertaken by the organization that is the subject of the theory of change. These activities usually take place in the context of ongoing programs, although they can also be one-time projects, special initiatives, or policies such as legislation or regulations.
  • Outcomes are the desired short-, medium-, or long-term results of successful program or policy implementation.
  • Impacts (or Goals) represent the highest purpose of the program, initiative, or organization that is the subject of the theory of change.

To illustrate this, we can look at a simple example. Let’s say you’ve decided you want to go to law school, and in order to get into law school you have to get a good score on the LSAT. So, how can you make sure you get a good score? Intuitively, you decide that taking a test prep class is the way to go. It sounds simple enough, but it’s worth thinking through the assumption that taking the test prep class would actually improve your score. Why do we think that might happen? Well, one factor could certainly be that you get more familiarity with the test and the types of questions asked. Perhaps there is another, more psychological factor at work too. If you’re someone who gets nervous taking tests, the practice exams and deep engagement with the material that comes with a class could help you to get more comfortable with the idea of the LSAT and make it seem less intimidating, thus improving performance.

Sure enough, this line of thinking lends itself quite easily to a theory of change:

Of course, most real-life programs and initiatives are quite a bit more complex than this simple example, which is why it's important to take the time to get the details outside of your head and onto the page or screen. Here's a theory of change I helped develop for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Performing Arts Program, which distributes about $20 million a year to organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area region. This was the first theory of change the program ever had, and it was used to guide grantmaking between 2009 and 2011. (Don't be confused by the labels; in this case, "Ultimate Outcomes" = "Impacts," and "Cluster" and "Component" outcomes just mean early-stage and late-stage respectively.)

The truth is that any decision you make, if it has any element of intentionality, can be diagrammed as a theory of change. Everything from taking an umbrella with you in case it rains to making time for your favorite TV show has a theory of change behind it. Even if the idea of formalizing your decision-making in this way feels utterly unnatural, I can assure you that if you think strategically at all, then you have a theory of change in your head already. What I can’t tell you is whether it’s a good theory of change—that’s something that you probably won’t be able to figure out until you take the time to write it down and get feedback on it.

Theory of change was developed originally as an evaluation methodology. But I’ve come to believe it’s much more powerful when deployed as a design tool for strategy. I’ve worked with many different strategy frameworks over the years, and most of them are essentially the same set of tools in different packaging. For me, what sets theory of change apart is its insistence that we name the assumptions of cause and effect behind our work. It can’t tell you what your goals should be, but if you already know where you want to end up, I don’t know of another tool that prompts anywhere near the same level of critical thinking about how you’re going to get there.

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