Theory of Change in a nutshell

By Heléne Clark

author_helene-clark
Heléne Clark (biography)

How can you plan to make change happen or evaluate the effectiveness of actions you took? How can you link desired long-term goals with all the conditions that must be in place? How can you map out a step-by-step pathway that highlights your assumptions and expectations?

Theory of Change (ToC) is a graphic and narrative explanation of how and why a change process is expected to happen in a particular context.

At its heart, Theory of Change spells out initiative or program logic. It defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify changes thought to be necessary to the goal that need to happen earlier (preconditions).

Theory of Change purports to explain change process in diagrammatically modeling all the causal linkages in an initiative, ie., its shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes. The identified changes are mapped graphically, showing each outcome in logical relationship to all the others, and connected to one another by arrows that imply causality as well as chronological flow.

Causal linkages between outcomes are explained by “rationales” or statements of why one outcome is thought to be a prerequisite to the attainment of another. The graphic is often referred to as the “outcomes pathway.” Interventions and strategies—the work of an initiative—may be mapped to specific linkages along the outcomes pathway to show what participants think it will take to effect the changes, and when. Change processes need not be linear, but can have many feedback loops that need to be understood.

The innovation of Theory of Change lies (1) in making the distinction between desired and actual outcomes, and (2) in requiring stakeholders to model their desired outcomes in an order in which they need to be achieved (eg., a student will not graduate unless they have passed their courses) before they decide on activities, tactics, strategies, and other forms of intervention.

This approach allows practitioners to make choices within an outcomes frame of reference so that the activities can be chosen for their potential to achieve the outcomes necessary to the initiative’s goal.

Apart from the concepts and principles that make it a rigorous method of forecasting and explaining change processes, Theory of Change refers not to any pre-existing theory but to the knowledge and expectations proponents bring to a given change process.

Theory of Change is both process and product:

  • the process of working out the theory, mainly in group sessions of practitioners and stakeholders led by a capable facilitator; and,
  • as the product of that process, a document of the change model showing how and why a goal will be reached.

There is a good deal of discussion as to which provides more value to practitioners and stakeholders—the group process of reflecting on the work, surfacing assumptions, creating transparency and building consensus; or the product, a sound and complete plan with plausible potential for producing the change desired.

Theory of Change can begin at any stage before, during, and after the lifetime of an initiative, depending on the intended use:

  • A theory developed at the outset is best at informing the conceptualization and planning of an initiative. Having worked out a change model, practitioners can make more informed decisions about strategy and tactics.
  • As monitoring and evaluation data become available, stakeholders can periodically refine the Theory of Change as the evidence indicates.
  • A Theory of Change can be developed retrospectively by reading program documents, talking to stakeholders and using monitoring and evaluation data. This is often done during evaluations or for a reflective process of learning about what has worked and why, in order to understand the past and to plan for the future.

The three basic quality control criteria are:

  • plausibility
  • feasibility
  • testability.

ActKnowledge (https://www.actknowledge.org/) has added another key criterion: appropriate scope (Clark, 2003). An actionable theory that can be communicated to the key audiences is dependent in part upon choosing the right scope: broad enough to leave no gaps in the model, yet focused on the opportunities and resources at hand. Appropriate scope also subsumes the evaluation concept of “accountability”—that is, to what level of the theory will the initiating organization expect to be accountable for the achievement of outcomes?

Theory of Change is widely used in planning and evaluation, with innovations continuing to emerge. If you have used Theory of Change what has your experience been? What aspects have you found most helpful? If you are new to this tool, how do you think it could help you?

To find out more:
Center for Theory of Change. (Online): https://www.theoryofchange.org/

Taplin, D. and Clark, H. (2012). Theory of change basics. Primer on theory of change. ActKnowledge, New York, United States of America. (Online – open access): https://www.theoryofchange.org/wp-content/uploads/toco_library/pdf/ToCBasics.pdf (PDF 1.1MB).

Reference:
Clark, H. (2003). SCOPE: How Much Should a Good Theory Account For? Center for Theory of Change: New York, United States of America. (Online): https://www.theoryofchange.org/wp-content/uploads/toco_library/pdf/scope.pdf (PDF 130KB).

Biography: Heléne Clark Ph.D. is co-founder and director of ActKnowledge and President of the Center for Theory of Change in New York City, USA. ActKnowledge is a social enterprise that established the Center for Theory of Change, a non-profit organization that promotes quality standards and best practice for the development and implementation of Theory of Change, with a particular focus on its use and application in the areas of international development, sustainability, education, human rights and social change.

9 thoughts on “Theory of Change in a nutshell”

  1. Hi Heléne, thanks for creating a blog post explaining Theory of Change in a nutshell. This is very useful and a great resource to share. ToCs are also increasingly developed at my home organisation (Eawag, Switzerland) and we had an iterative two-year long ToC process within our large inter- and transdisciplinary research program Wings and still plan to use ToC in the long-term. We reflected on and analysed our process, and compiled challenges and lessons learned in a recently published article (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2021.02.009). Challenges included, for instance, dealing with initial reservations by our members to engage with the tool, maintaining a balance between abstract and concrete discussions, as well as the challenge to go beyond a mere facilitation role when leading the process. I would be curious to hear if you face similar and/or additional challenges and how you cope with them!

    Thanks and all the best,
    Lisa

    Reply
    • Lisa,

      After twenty years, I still have the exact same challenges you mention. I’ve found ways around resistance to the tool (don’t tell them), and keeping the concrete in the conversation but often not perfectly. I do feel okay stepping out of facilitator role if I know the content or common sense tells me and I “suggest” content or ask “what about”. That I think is less of a problem in ToC because as the facilitator you have a quality goal in mind, not just consensus and I feel okay about stepping in as long as I never present myself as the “expert” in their work, but the critical ear.

      Reply
      • Thanks for your answer Heléne! I agree that the overall goal of the ToC development is not necessarily always achieving a consensus (although it can be a nice outcome), but the process of exposing one’s own assumption to others and critically evaluating them in a group setting is in itself valuable as it triggers reflection on a regular basis. In cases where no consensus could be achieved, we tried to explore the differing assumptions in form of scenarios and to discuss the implications of each of them for our program, activities and project partners.

        Reply
  2. Heléne, very clear and helpful blog post! I do hope that we will see ToC used more widely in educational initiatives.
    Jude

    Reply
  3. Helene, this is a nice clear, concise and practical definition of a theory of change. I support professionals looking to implement, spread, and scale interventions. They are rarely trained in theories of change, but need them to enact the changes. In particular, we talk about the importance of having a theory of change to link the WHAT (WHAT we want people to do differently) and the HOW (how we will support them to change their behavior) – for example how we describe it here: https://thecenterforimplementation.com/implementation-in-action-bulletin/feb-2021

    Will flag this article as a nice description of theory of change.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this interesting introductory article, it points out the potential of ToC development very well! In the tdAcademy (https://www.td-academy.org/en/home/), we apply and do research on ToC as well.

    There will be a session on potentials & limitations of ToC in transdisciplinary research at the ITD Conference on September 14th, if you or other readers are interested: https://www.conftool.org/itdconf2021/index.php?page=browseSessions&form_session=4#paperID179

    Reply

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