Theory of Change

What is a theory of change?

Welcome to this article, the first in a series which focuses on a theory of change.

So what is a theory of change?

A theory of change is a map, diagram or written description of how the activities you take part in will create the change you want to see in the world and ultimately deliver on your long term goals. It works through the inputs you need (from funding, human resources and equipment) and what main activities you need to do in order to achieve the completed products or services which your charity provides. Crucially, however, it then maps out the journey your beneficiary needs to go on to see that change become a reality in the world. This journey occurs through step changes (known as intermediate outcomes) to achieve the ultimately impact or long term goal.

Shows a template for a theory of change mapping inputs to activities to outputs. Outputs then lead to step changes outside of the organisation (known as intermediate outcomes) and finally the impact (the long term goal of the intervention).
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When should you develop a theory of change?

A theory of change can be developed in many different situations. You can choose to create one for your whole organisation or for a single intervention, project or programme. In some cases it can be ideal to have several, perhaps one which covers your organisation as a whole and then individual ones which go into more detail for particular change initiatives.

Ideally, a theory of change is developed before an intervention goes through significant planning or intervention. The reason being that a theory of change should be developed from the end in mind first, identifying what you are trying to achieve, the step changes which need to occur in order for this to happen and then the most appropriate outputs or interventions to deliver these. This process is known as ‘backward mapping’. This process therefore should help identify the most appropriate intervention rather than be used as a justification for those already in place.

Practically however, this doesn’t always happen and you can get many of the same benefits of developing a theory of change when it is created when your intervention is at a more mature stage. It is important, however, to still approach it in the same way – identifying the end goal first and then mapping backwards.

What are the first steps I can take?

If you are interested in developing a theory of change then there are a couple of things which you can do first that can be helpful:

  1. Do as much research as you can. This can include reading the rest of this series on a theory of change and looking through the free resources you can find on websites. 
  2. Get buy in from senior stakeholders within your organisation. Developing a theory of change can take significant time so it is important that those with decision making power support the idea of creating a theory of change. You might find it helpful to look through our upcoming article on the benefits of developing a theory of change. In addition, it can be worthwhile to think of the specific benefits your organisation could experience from creating one and how you could use it on an ongoing basis. 
  3. Decide who will ‘lead the charge’ on creating your theory of change. You might choose to use an external facilitator or a facilitator from within your organisation but it is important to have someone who has the time to dedicate towards the process as well as someone who can bring the right people together and facilitate important discussion to create a theory of change which is accurate, comprehensive and useful for your organisation.  
Want to know more? Feel free to explore more of our articles on a theory of change or find out more about our theory of change facilitator course below.

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