Theory of Change

5 Unique Challenges when creating your Theory of Change


We have all heard of the importance of developing a Theory Of Change for our organisation. We know that it can be a powerful strategy tool when used effectively. Reports such as the 2015 ‘Management Tools and Trends’ report have found that it is in the top 5 management tools which non-profits found to be beneficial (see full report here). At the same time, when allocating time and resource to it’s development we want to ensure that it can be developed as smoothly and successfully as possible. In this article, we have chosen to address some of the concerns we often hear by looking at some of the unique challenges that can come with developing a Theory Of Change. We are going to explore the five most common issues organisations come across when developing their Theory Of Change and include some useful tactics to both ease the process and maximise the value to your organisation going forward.

1. Focusing on what ‘could be’ and not what ‘is’ 

When looking at the time and resource we have traditionally needed to create a Theory Of Change it is no wonder that many non-profits have found themselves creating their Theory Of Change once they are operational and already implementing their chosen interventions. This can be a natural consequence to the external factors non-profits find themselves facing as well as the invaluable passion for action that fuels the sector. The challenge that faces these organisation, therefore, becomes one of mindset. At the creation of your organisation you will have no doubt spent a great deal of time considering all of the elements that may be needed to create the changes that you wish to see in the world. It is a time of brainstorming and collaboration. We have to think far and wide before we can narrow down to our best options. We think about what ‘could be’. After all, non-profits are driven by a desire to change what ‘is’ to what we hope it can ‘become’. It is this mindset we need to reconnect with when creating our Theory Of Change. Taking the time to put aside for a moment what we are currently doing to rewind the clock to recapture that creative big picture thinking. By doing this we can maximise our theory’s benefit as a management tool and see it’s value into the future of our organisation. 

Tactic: One powerful way that we can manage this particular challenge is to create our Theory Of Change with the end developed first. We focus on the end goal that we are striving to achieve and we then ‘backwards map’ to identify all the step changes which need to occur, as well as all the resources we need and the activities which need to take place. This is often counter intuitive to us at first as we are more present-focused by nature. Going backwards from the result first, however, proves far more useful in supporting the creation of a theory which is able to pick all of the crucial elements we need to create the most impact and see our desired results.  

2. Allowing time to test what you have created

As is evident from our first challenge, when we first create our Theory Of Change, much of it’s content will be drawn from the ‘big picture’ thinking and assumptions of the team developing the theory. This is an important step and needs to take place for the theory to be as successful for us as possible. These assumptions are rooted in the team’s expertise and, as such, are an invaluable element that provides organisations with a promising start to their theory development. At the same time, it is important for us to keep in mind that these assumptions will need to be tested when put into practice. One of the key elements in making the most out of your Theory Of Change is in the testing of your creation afterwards. We all know that when we put our assumptions into practice, in the real world, we can often be surprised at the outcome. Working as a team to follow up on the accuracy of our assumptions benefits us hugely. We find we can expand our knowledge about the details of how things are operating day to day, month to month and year to year. In light of this knowledge, the team can then take a decision as to whether or not we would benefit from making any changes going forward. 

Tactic: By setting up a follow-up meeting or workshop for after your Theory Of Change facilitation session, in which you can discuss how as a team you wish to test the theory you have created sets time aside, ahead of time, to ensure this task is covered. We recognise that, at this point, this may sound to you like a great deal of work, and indeed it can be. One tip that can greatly ease this workload is to capitalise on any of the assumptions or elements of your theory which have already have been proven by others. This means that the only further research that will be needed is that which serves to cover the outstanding elements that have not been tested by others, but impact your organisation. 

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3. Reviewing and updating it

We discussed in the previous point the need to test your theory for how the assumptions that were made at the beginning of the process are behaving in practice. For many organisations this is a prime opportunity for us to gain further insight in to the inner workings of the organisation and the impact we are having. Elements which may have been assumed to have an impact one way, may surprise us and not stand up to further research and analysis. This can often happen in the reverse as well. Whilst occasionally unexpected, this is actually a natural part of the process and makes the top 5 list today due to it being a more ‘normal’ consequence of the process than not. Traditional methods of conducting a Theory Of Change can involve a great deal of time and resource and represent a  significant investment, particularly the first time around. As a result, motivation within the organisation to revisit and rework the theory on a frequent basis can be understandably reduced. Theories Of Change, however, almost always need updates at some point for the reasons already mentioned here, as well as in response to  organisational changes in their strategies/priorities etc. As we adapt, it is a natural consequence that our Theory of Change will need to adapt too.

Tactic: Scheduling in time for a review and update on the completion of your initial draft can be an effective way to deal with this particular challenge. Depending on your organisation’s preference this could be every six months, annually or even more frequently if you are at the beginning of your journey and wish for the added reassurance of more frequent assessments. Adding it as standing agenda item to meetings which already exist such as board or management meetings can mean there is no additional admin to go through and support you in streamlining this process for greater ease and confidence. 

4. Being SMART

In your reading around Theory Of Change you may have come across the acronym SMART. This is a useful reminder to us as to how to get the most out of your Theory Of Change development. Remembering to keep the content of your Theory Of Change: Specific; Measurable; Accountable; Realistic and Time based can be hugely beneficial to the development of your Theory Of Change both in the short-term and into the future . We will focus on two of the SMART elements here, namely being Measurable and Accountable:

1. Measurable: Keeping your assumptions measurable is beneficial to your organisation as it ensures that they can be tested with success. We have mentioned earlier in this article how useful this can be. Our assumptions can benefit hugely from reliable monitoring for how they are delivering in practice vs our expectations. This can also support us in creating an overall benchmark to evaluate how effectively we feel we are performing as an organisation. 

2. Accountable: By identifying the elements your team chooses to be accountable for and, by contrast, the elements which occur as a result of other factors, is an important differentiation for us to consider in our Theory Of Change . Effective evaluations rely strongly on our ability to identify what results have been a direct result of our own interventions, and what have been delivered in conjunction with others.

Tactic: By focusing on the words you are using carefully we are one step closer to overcoming this common challenge. Words such as less, fewer or more are helpful for your group to keep in mind as they naturally lend themselves more towards measurement, than words such as like, better or improved. When considering each element of your theory it can be beneficial to consider questions such as: can we confidently say we delivered this part alone? If we don’t feel comfortable doing so then we can consider whether it is best to not include it, or if it is forming an important element of our theory then we can consider using what we refer to as an ‘accountability line’. An accountability line functions as a demarcation of  what we are being accountable for and what is being delivered in conjunction with other organisations or individuals. 

5. Integrating and using it regularly

We choose to create a Theory Of Change for reasons that are personal to our own organisation and, as such, Theories Of Change are utilised across the world for for many different reasons. These purposes can often range from communicating with our stakeholders to planning our impact evaluations. It can be important for us to remember these reasons throughout our theory development as our Theory Of Change’s value is to be most profound when it is embedded into our organisation and ensuring it is being utilised to serve the purpose we created it for. As a strategy document we find that the more we can refer to and leverage our Theory Of Change, the more we are able to consider which parts we are deeming accurate and those which we may choose to change or adapt to better suit our organisation.

Tactic: Avoiding this final challenge can be reassuringly straight forward. Once we have created our Theory Of Change by choosing to build it into other processes within the organisation as soon as we are able we can ensure we have integrated our theory quickly and effectively. An example of this might be to consider building it into our marketing material if we wish to use it in our communications or by setting up any impact evaluation meetings we are holding to look at building upon our Theory Of Change in the future. 


When creating your Theory of Change, there can be some unique challenges to overcome to ensure you experience all of the benefits available to you. These include making sure you focus on what could be, not just what is, ensuring that you test your theory of change once you have a first draft, and finding the time to review and update it periodically. Using our tactics, you can work as a team to make sure your Theory of Change becomes a powerful and valuable tool which is fully integrated within your organisation.

One thought on “5 Unique Challenges when creating your Theory of Change

  1. One powerful way that we can manage this particular challenge is to create our Theory Of Change with the end developed first

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