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Theory of Change

Explained for beginners

Every now and then, you hear people talking about this fuzzy thing called “Theory of Change“. Practitioners might take it for granted, but probably some of you are still wrapping their heads around this concept. If so, no need to worry: we got you covered!

Theory of Change explained for beginners

The term “Theory of Change” (ToC) can be traced back to 1990s, when it was first discussed in relation to social programs and political initiatives. Since 2002, this logical framework gained even more popularity, thanks to the dissemination led by the Aspen Roundtable for Community Change.

There are several definitions of Theory of Change that can be found on the Internet. Here, we list a few:


ToC is the description of how certain activities are meant to lead to specific results, and how these results should generate long-term social impacts“. (TheoryofChange.org)

“A ToC explains how activities are understood to produce a series of results that contribute to achieving the final intended impacts” (BetterEvaluation)

“ToC helps you define whether your work is contributing towards achieving the impact you envision, and if there is another way that you need to consider as well” (DIY)


theory of change explained, social business design

So, we can consider Theory of Change both a process and its product. The process makes practitioners think (if and) how a certain program or intervention connects to the desired, long-term goals it aims to achieve. The product is its logic representation. But why was this framework develop in the first place?

Theory of Change: why it’s important

Sometimes aspiring changemakers rush a little while developing their new projects. When this occurs to happen, they often forget to properly map out all the conditions that need to be true in order for their initiatives to generate positive, long-lasting changes. As a consequence, interventions might lack numbers of key elements, ending up not achieving their intended impact.

Because of that, ToC turns out to be the best logical framework practitioners can follow when discussing whether their projects have any “middle” missing or not. A great framework indeed, that has been visualized in several different ways (i.e. results chains, log-frames, etc.), including the one you can find below.

theory of change explained

[Note: The template is taken from one of the guest posts I wrote for “Social Innovation Academy“. If interested, you can read the full article here! 🙂 ]

But what are the main benefits of using the Theory of Change model?

First, it allows changemakers to design more focused interventions and produce better outcomes. Secondly, ToC is a participatory process, thus people are “forced” to brainstorm together to find common solutions and goals to achieve. Once the team sits around the same table, chances of misunderstanding get constrained. Lastly, building a solid Theory of Change can help practitioners more easily communicate their strategy to external stakeholders, as well as start setting up impact measurement systems.

Theory of Change process: a brief overview

But how does the process of building a Theory of Change actually work? There are tons of articles and webinars covering this topic in detail. In this article, however, we discuss only the main steps of the ToC process.

To begin with, the model embeds two diverse timelines: the “planning line” and the “delivery line“. The planning line moves backwards from the long-term impact goal, while the delivery line moves in the opposite direction. ToC process mostly focuses on the first one and is articulated in 5 logical steps (in the following order).

1.The first step consists in analyzing the context of the initiative. This also helps make explicit the social problem tackled and the main beneficiaries targeted.

2.Secondly, the bigger, long-term goal is defined. In other words, the social impact mission, the positive change to generate.

3.Third step is all about identifying the so-called “outcomes“, those mid-term preconditions necessary to achieve the ultimate goal. Here, it’s also important to map out the hyphotheses/assumptions that must be true for each cause-effect relation.

theory of change explained

4.Then follows the identification of the so-called “outputs“, those short-term preconditions necessary to achieve the outcomes. In terms of hyphotheses/assumptions mapping, the same logic we discussed before applies here too.

5.Finally, it comes the time to define the activities, as well as their inputs. These elements will be the pillars and starting point for building up your “delivery line“.

Now that the ToC has been properly developed, there is still room room for further discussions. It’s indeed crucial to check overlooked contextual elements that significantly affect your intervention and find ways to validate each assumption. Once the ToC diagram has been validated, it can be turned into a document and shared with stakeholders and other team members. Finally, remember that a ToC can also help you identify the right indicators for conducting social impact assessment.

Conclusion

In this short article, we introduced you to the Theory of Change model. As seen, a ToC is both a process and product, able to highlight how a certain intervention supposedly links to the long-term goal it aims to generate. As fellow colleagues at TheoryofChange.org would say, it is also “(..) a framework that provides a working model against which to test hypotheses and assumptions about what actions will best produce the outcomes in the model“.

In conclusion, every aspiring changemaker should to start digging into the concept of Theory of Change. If interested, feel free to drop us a message using this form. We will send you a collection of the best resources you can find out there covering this topic!


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