A tool to develop your Theory of Change

In this post I want to share with you a very powerful tool, developed by DIY, on how to use Theory of Change to develop solutions for complex problems.

Let´s first clarify why it is important to set a Theory of Change, what is it exactly and how to use the tool. At the end  of the article, you will also find interesting information and material developed by renowned organizations in the field of social change.

Why Setting a Theory of Change?

Setting up a Theory of Change is like making a roadmap that outlines the steps by which you plan to achieve your goal. It 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.

What is a Theory of Change?

A theory of change (TOC) is a tool for developing solutions to complex social problems.

  • A basic TOC explains how a group of early and intermediate accomplishments sets the stage for producing long-range results.
  • A more complete TOC articulates the assumptions about the process through which change will occur and specifies the ways in which all of the required early and intermediate outcomes related to achieving the desired long-term change will be brought about and documented as they occur.


The Theory of Change tool

The Theory of Change tool not only helps to clearly articulate and connect your work to your bigger goal, it also allows you to spot potential risks in your plan by sharing the underlying assumptions in each step. In large organisations, when there may be several projects running simultaneously, the Theory of Change helps to map these different projects first and then consider how they link and relate to each other.

This tool can also aid in aligning team members to the larger end goal and help them understand their role in achieving it.

How do I use it?

According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review,  a good theory of change should answer six big questions:
1. Who are you seeking to influence or benefit (target population)?
2. What benefits are you seeking to achieve (results)?
3. When will you achieve them (time period)?
4. How will you and others make this happen (activities, strategies, resources, etc.)?
5. Where and under what circumstances will you do your work (context)?
6. Why do you believe your theory will bear out (assumptions)?

Start by noting down the main problem you want to solve, and also your long term vision on the change you want to accomplish. Then complete the other boxes, such as your key audience and your entry point to reach that audience. Try to be as specific as possible because it will help you to come up with more effective actions that you can take.

Work outwards from your defining problem, and towards your long-term impact. Write down the people that are most affected by the issue that you’ve identified and who you hope to help with your work – this could be a small community group or a large organisation. Then think about where to start your work, you may need to find a place, a person or a thing that will be your first port of call. Try to think of some practical steps that you can take to make changes – like creating partnerships, or making tweaks to existing processes. Try to keep these as action-oriented as possible.

And finally, what would the immediate results or outcomes be? These could be tangible results that you can show to other people to clarify how your work is making a difference. List the key outcomes that your activity would lead to: these are the preconditions that you need to realise your vision.

As you fill each of the boxes in the worksheet, it is critical to also reflect on the key assumptions that underpin these steps in your work. This may help you to spot potential risks or connections between the different projects.


Other resources

Several organizations offer helpful information on theory of change — and even some templates that grant makers or grantees may find helpful for creating their own theory of change or logic model.

  • Theory of Change (www.theoryofchange.org), a collaborative project of ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Round- table on Community Change. This comprehensive website offers a wide array of background information, tools, and sample documents that can help grant makers and grantees get started with theory of change.
  • K. Kellogg Foundation (www.wkkf.org). The Logic Model Development Guide, a companion to the foundation’s Evaluation Handbook, focuses on how to develop and use a logic model.
  • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (www.geofunders.org). GEO provides links to various resources on theory of change, including the INSP Theory of Change Development Tool and GEO’s own emerging organizational theory of change.
  • Annie E. Casey Foundation (www.aecf.org). Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results and Learning, the foundation’s handbook for community organizations involved with its Making Connections program, is available on its website.
  • International Network on Strategic Philanthropy (www.insp.efc.be). The Theory of Change Development Tool and accompanying manual may be downloaded from the INSP website.

If you are using Theory of Change and want to share your experience, please feel free to leave us a comment below. If you know other useful resources, we will also be happy to extend the list.