Theory Of Change

Theory of Change (ToC) is a methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used in companies, philanthropy, not-for-profit and government sectors to promote social change. Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions. (Working Backwards, ChangeTheWorld) I don't like this phrase much, as it feels like it's about a generic theory of change-agentry, as opposed to a context-specific theory of steps to take to reach a specific outcome.

I'm trying to apply this at (2020-06-27) Ways To Nudge Future - see Aug'2021 section

Theory of Change explains the process of change by outlining causal linkages in an initiative, i.e., its shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes.

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 before they decide on forms of intervention to achieve those outcomes.

Theory of Change emerged from the field of program theory and program evaluation in the mid 1990s as a new way of analyzing the theories motivating programs and initiatives working for social and political change.

Within industrial-organizational psychology, Austin and Bartunek have noted that approaches to organizational development are frequently based on more or less explicit assumptions about 1) the processes through which organizations change, and 2) the interventions needed to effect change.

Within evaluation practice, Theory of Change emerged in the 1990s at the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change as a means to model and evaluate comprehensive community initiatives. Notable methodologists, such as Huey-Tsyh Chen, Peter Rossi, Michael Quinn Patton, Heléne Clark, and Carol Weiss, had been thinking about how to apply program theories to evaluation since 1980.

1995 publication, ‘New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives’. In that book, Carol Weiss, a member of the Roundtable's steering committee on evaluation, hypothesized that a key reason complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. She argued that stakeholders of complex community initiatives typically are unclear about how the change process will unfold and therefore place little attention on the early and mid-term changes needed to reach a longer-term goal.

She challenged designers of complex community-based initiatives to be specific about the theories of change guiding their work and suggested that doing so would improve their overall evaluation plans and would strengthen their ability to claim credit for outcomes that were predicted in their theory

The explosion of knowledge of the term, and demand for "theories", led to the formation in 2013 of the first non-profit dedicated to promoting and clarifying standards for Theory of Change. The Center for Theory of Change houses a library, definitions, glossary and is licensed to offer Theory of Change Online by ActKnowledge free of charge.

new areas of work, such as linking the Theory of Change approach to systems thinking and complexity. Change processes are no longer seen as linear, but as having many feedback loops that need to be understood.

there is evidence of some confusion about what the term ‘theory of change’ actually means; in some cases, what some program developers describe as a Theory of Change is, in essence, simply log frame, strategic plan or another approach that does not encompass the complexity of the theory of change approach.


Basic structure

A Theory of Change is a high order, or macro, If-Then statement: If this is done, Then these are the anticipated results. The outcomes pathway is a set of needed conditions relevant to a given field of action, which are placed diagrammatically in logical relationship to one another and connected with arrows that posit causality

In the early days of Theory of Change, Anne Kubisch and others established three quality control criteria. These are:




In addition to these three basic quality control criteria, ActKnowledge has added another key criterion: Appropriate Scope. 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 enough on the opportunities and resources at hand

“What has to be in place for this outcome to be achieved?” and “Are these preconditions sufficient for the outcome to be achieved?”

The ultimate success of any Theory of Change lies in its ability to demonstrate progress on the achievement of outcomes. Evidence of success confirms the theory and indicates that the initiative is effective. Therefore, the outcomes in a Theory of Change must be coupled with indicators that guide and facilitate measurement.

Practitioners have developed logic models and logical frameworks as strategies and tools to plan and evaluate social change programs. While these models well articulate the goals and resources of an initiative or organization, they give less focus to the complex social, economic, political and institutional processes that underlie social and societal change.

Many organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development, have used a Results Framework and companion Scorecard as management tools. The Results Framework is complementary and adaptable to a Theory of Change-based monitoring and evaluation system. The framework gives the appearance of being derived from a well-thought-out conceptual model, even if the conceptual model is lacking. The limitations of the Results Frameworks is that they do not show causal connections between conditions that need to change in order to meet the ultimate goals. The added value of Theory of Change lies in revealing the conceptual model

New horizons of theory of change

The Annie E. Casey Foundation proposes mapping an organization's social change work along three criteria: Impact, Influence, Leverage.

Another refinement, which directly addresses this problem of attribution, comes from Outcome mapping. This process distinguishes changes in state from changes in behavior, changes in “state” being just those broad shifts in economic conditions, policy, politics, institutional behavior, and so on, among whole populations (e.g., cities, regions, countries, industries, economic sectors, etc.).

Does Theory of Change frustrate or complement strategic thinking?

Given that things don't happen in a straight-line sequence – as things impact each other in multiple, partly unpredictable ways, with all kinds of feedback loops that aren't modeled in a top-down diagramming format – an important question is: How adequate is the linear Theory of Change model as a description of what's going to happen?

How to build a theory of change — NCVO Knowhow

A theory of change is a description of why a particular way of working will be effective, showing how change happens in the short, medium and long term to achieve the intended impact. It can be represented in a visual diagram, as a narrative, or both

Examples provided in this How To are based on a hypothetical theory of change for a youth unemployment project.

The intended impact might be a ‘reduction in youth unemployment in the local area’.

In order to reduce youth unemployment, young people will need to:
• get sustainable jobs
• remain in their jobs.

To achieve our long-term outcome ‘young people get sustainable jobs’, young people will need to:
• increase their job-specific skills and experience
• become more work-ready
• become more motivated to work

Our assumptions in our hypothetical case study include the following:
• The target group of young people will respond to outreach and engage with the project.
• Young people will have sufficiently stable lives to engage productively.
• Families will get involved and be supportive.
• The model of peer support will be inspirational.
• One-to-one work will build confidence and increase learning.
• Work experience will provide appropriate skills to match available jobs.
• There are sufficient jobs for the young people.
• Available jobs will be permanent positions.

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