Theory of Change

A while ago I was in a bookshop that had a bunch of greeting cards with children’s pictures and sayings on them. One I picked up said something like, ‘Anyone can change so long as they’ve packed enough clothes’. I had to buy it because when you work with organisations that are helping people change their lives this seemed like a perfectly reasonable theory of change.

The appreciation of the need for a change of clothes is the foundation of the ‘Dress for Success’ initiative. I donate work clothes to Dress for Success knowing that women go to them to find one or two work outfits to help them get ready to enter into paid employment. A Theory of Change is built around a pathway of change. What might this pathway look like for a service like Dress for Success? An answer is in the diagram below; they provide work clothes for people who cannot otherwise afford them, they help those people make a good impression at job interviews, and increase the likelihood that they will find employment.

A Theory of Change is a theory about how and why a programme or service works. Imagine that the word ‘IF’ comes before each box, and ‘THEN’ comes after each box in the diagram above. For example:

  • ‘IF we provide work clothes for those unable to afford them THEN these work clothes will help people create a good impression at job interviews’
  • ‘IF people create a good impression at job interviews THEN they will be more successful in their search for paid employment’
  • ‘IF people are more successful in their search for paid employment THEN…’

These ‘IF… THEN’ statements are about causality; that is, what happens as a result of something else happening.

This theory of change can be based on many sources of knowledge, including:

  • Wisdom and experience - for example, it makes sense that this is the case and our colleagues confirm it. We also know that often our own impressions of people are influenced by how they dress.
  • Anedotal evidence and feedback - for example, there may be employers who tell us that how someone dresses for a job interview influences their decision-making; or there may be organisations that can tell us that people who were unsuccessful in the job markert experienced more success when they improved their appearance.
  • Research and evaluation – for example, there may be studies about how important first-impressions are, and about how people dressing well can contribute to a positive first impression.
  • Best, good or preferred practices – for example, many work places have a dress code that the service is helping people fit in with

A Theory of Change provides an overall picture of why we think a programme or service is going to make a difference. It helps us pinpoint the sources of evidence that we’ve called upon to develop the theory, and helps facilitate a discussion among different stakeholders about their thoughts, experiences and knowledge that can help broaden and deepen the Theory of Change. Such a discussion also supports the development of shared understandings among stakeholders about what a programme or services is trying to achieve, and how.

Developing a Theory of Change

Having three or four inter-connected boxes is a good place to begin a discussion about a Theory of Change. This helps people think about the big picture of a pathway of change. They can then test the assumptions behind their ‘IF…THEN’ statements by discussing the evidence (e.g., wisdom, anecdote, research, preferred practices).

Some people may find this too linear, and breaking free from having the boxes connected in a linear, left-to-right fashion may help ease their discomfort. For example, people may prefer a circle with many points for people to engage with a service for difference reasons. Finding the right way of drawing a diagram to help illustrate a pathway of change, and enable people to describe and discuss their Theory of Change is well-worthwhile.

When a pathway of change is expanded upon with more information about the resources being used, the activities being undertaken, and the changes that are happening for participants straightaway and then in the longer term, it’s well on its way to becoming a Logic Model. A Logic Model is a picture of a programme or service that reflects the Theory of Change. It is also often represented in a linear fashion, but again there’s no need to stick to this convention if it doesn’t work for you. More important is developing a Logic Model that people understand and can use to discuss a programme or service.

While a diagram will never capture the reality of what an organisation is doing and achieving, it can be a useful communication device within an organisation, and also between an organisation, its community, and its funders.

Useful Resources

Anderson, A.A. (2005). The Community Builder's Approach to Theory of Change: A practical guide to theory development. New York: The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.

Philanthropy411 Blog (29 March 2010). 10 Great Resources for Creating a Theory of Change.