An Introduction to Theory of Change
Andrea Anderson is a research associate at the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, where she focuses on work related to planning and evaluating community initiatives.
What Is a Theory of Change?
A theory of change (TOC) is the product of a series of critical-thinking exercises that provides a comprehensive picture of the early- and intermediate-term changes in a given community that are needed to reach a long-term goal articulated by the community (see box for more detail).
What Is the Value of Creating a TOC?
Community initiatives are sometimes planned without an explicit understanding of the early and intermediate steps required for long-term changes to occur; therefore, many assumptions about the change process need to be examined for program planning or evaluation planning to be most effective. A TOC creates an honest picture of the steps required to reach a goal. It provides an opportunity for stakeholders to assess what they can influence, what impact they can have, and whether it is realistic to expect to reach their goal with the time and resources they have available.
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.
Steps to Create a Theory of Change
1. Identify a long-term goal.
2. Conduct backwards mapping to identify the preconditions necessary to achieve that goal.
3. Identify the interventions that your initiative will perform to create these preconditions.
4. Develop indicators for each precondition that will be used to assess the performance of the interventions.
5. Write a narrative that can be used to summarize the various moving parts in your theory.
Adapted from Anderson, A. (2005). The community builder’s approach to theory of change: A practical guide to theory and development. New York: The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.
Adapted from www.theoryofchange.org
How Can Initiatives Create a TOC?
Little exists in the way of a methodology for applying the TOC approach to real-world situations. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change seeks to fill this gap by developing tools and training materials to help program stakeholders create TOCs; we developed a process that community-based initiatives can use to create TOCs.
When I first began to work with groups to create theories of change, most of us thought that TOC was purely an evaluation exercise. But the more I worked with program stakeholders, the more I realized that the exercise of creating a TOC is really an expectation management tool that can benefit planning as well as evaluation; I found that just asking people to articulate assumptions about the change process they hoped to bring about produced a lot of blank stares, or produced work that wasn’t quite at the level of critical thinking that we thought was important. So we came up with a step-by-step process that helps to unpack a group’s thinking about how to bring about desired changes and how to go about documenting that change in a systematic fashion.
What Is the Process of Creating a TOC?
The first step is for stakeholders to be clear about what they want to produce through their initiative. We find group members often have very different ideas about what they are working toward.
The next step is for stakeholders to think about all of the preconditions the building blocks or requirements that must exist in order to reach their long-term goal. They then need to consider, in light of this big picture perspective, which of these preconditions (otherwise known as outcomes) they will take responsibility for producing.
Usually there is just a subset of outcomes that they can influence. Some preconditions are beyond the sphere of influence of any single initiative, such as needing a stable economy to produce enough jobs to reach an employment goal. Others may be beyond one program’s influence, but stakeholders could suggest ways that a particular program may be able to influence other programs to act, or they could identify areas for strategic collaboration or partnerships. For example, a precondition for a school readiness initiative might be that all children are properly immunized and healthy before they enter school. A small initiative couldn’t influence this precondition, but it may be able to help bring it about through collaboration with others in the community who could directly influence this key precondition for success (see box for a summary of the steps).
What’s the Difference Between a TOC and a Logic Model?
A logic model is a tactical explanation of the process of producing a given outcome. It outlines the program inputs and activities, the outputs they will produce, and the connections between those outputs and the desired outcomes. Alternatively, a TOC, as we define it, is a strategic picture of the multiple interventions required to produce the early and intermediate outcomes that are preconditions of reaching an ultimate goal.
Once a precondition (or outcome) has been identified through the TOC process, a logic model can be used to explain how that outcome will be produced. Thus, one TOC could actually be linked to a number of logic models, because a logic model could be constructed to illustrate how to produce each outcome in the TOC map. The TOC summarizes work at a strategic level, while a logic model would be used to illustrate the tactical, or program-level, understanding of the change process. A Microsoft PowerPoint presentation on the TOC website, www.theoryofchange.org. explains this issue in more detail.
How Are Concepts of TOCs and Logic Models Evolving?
During the early to mid-1990s, funders began increasing their emphasis on outcomes and accountability. As a result, people began paying more attention to TOCs and logic models and often created their own definitions of these concepts to meet their needs. Because people are increasingly seeing the value of doing this kind of work and because it’s not a branded idea, there are more definitions of these concepts now than there were 10 years ago. My concern is not that the field decide to do it one way, but that people use the exercise of creating a theory of change to ask hard questions about why they expect certain interventions to bring about the outcomes they seek, to question their assumptions about how the change process will unfold, and to be clear about how they’re selecting outcomes to focus on.
Instead of thinking about TOC as the magic bullet that can solve all of their planning and evaluation challenges, I hope that people will use TOC to learn how to ask fundamentally different and much more interesting questions from those we are used to asking about any initiative. The advice I would give to somebody coming at TOC for the first time is to be open-minded about the extent to which it can help them to be better strategic thinkers throughout all of their work, and not to think of it as just a planning or evaluation tool.
TOC tools and training materials are available on the Theory of Change website, a joint venture between the Roundtable and ActKnowledge: www.theoryofchange.org.
Erin Harris, Research Analyst, HFRP