What’s Behind a Theory of Change?
Engaging your organization’s leadership and team in creating a theory of change (TOC) can be a powerful and unifying activity. A good TOC (or theory of action or pathway) gives your partners and staff a clear portrait of why you do what you do, how you measure success, and how others can join you. To begin the process, consider these six questions.
- What is the population you seek to influence and by when? Affirming the change you want to bring about with a specific population within a set timeframe will make your theory more grounded, actionable, and measurable.
- What is the impact you seek with your intended beneficiaries? Clarity of where you are heading and for whom gives you and your team a very specific “North Star” for all that you do.
- How will you measure the change you want to make? This is the place to commit to specific indicators that will let you know how you are doing. The TOC is a learning and accountability tool to check the progress and assumptions of your strategies.
- What needs to be in place in the community, or in your organization, for you to be successful in your work? Identifying these “pre-conditions” helps clarify where and how you can intervene, and who are essential partners.
- What assumptions do you and your team make about what works and why it is important? Your activities and goals are connected by assumptions, which often go unnoticed. Naming these beliefs and rigorously testing these with research can affirm, sharpen, or change your direction.
- Where will you focus your organization’s interventions? Aligning your strategy to logically connect with measurable outcomes makes your theory actionable rather than aspirational. In order to achieve the outcomes you’ve identified, what are the 3-4 core areas where your organization in particular can make a difference?
Answering these questions will give you a start to building a visual theory of change and lifting up the value, purpose, and beliefs inherent in your work. For a more comprehensive treatment of building your own theory of change—and for guidance on avoiding common pitfalls—we recommend the following resources:
- Anderson, A. “The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change.” Aspen Institute. http://www.theoryofchange.org/pdf/TOC_fac_guide.pdf.
- Forti, M. (2012). “Six Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/six_theory_of_change_pitfalls_to_avoid.
Look for Communitas Consulting’s own theory of change in the February 2019 newsletter.