Using a theory of change (ToC) to better understand your program

This post provides a short introduction to the language and concepts of Theory of Change or program theory. It looks at how the use of these outcomes-based approaches helps those involved with  program learning, planning and evaluation. Subsequent outcomes-based posts look more specifically at developing logic models and working with outcomes.

Community-based change initiatives often have ambitious goals, and so planning specific on-the-ground strategies to those goals is difficult. Likewise, the task of planning and carrying out evaluation research that can inform practice and surface broader lessons for the field in general is a challenge. A Theory of Change approach provides a framework which encourages program staff and stakeholders to develop comprehensive descriptions and illustrations of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is outcomes-based, and helps those involved to clearly define long-term goals and then map backwards to identify the necessary preconditions that will be required for success.

toc-elements-final
Theories of Change consider a number of key elements that support program understanding.

Theories of change are vital to program success for a number of reasons. Programs need to be grounded in good theory. By developing a theory of change based on good theory, managers can be better assured that their programs are delivering the right activities for the desired outcomes. And by creating a theory of change programs are easier to sustain, bring to scale, and evaluate, since each step – from the ideas behind it, to the outcomes it hopes to provide, to the resources needed – are clearly defined within the theory. Often people talk about logic models and theory of change processes interchangeably, Logic models connect programmatic activities and outputs to client or stakeholder outcomes. But a theory of change goes further, specifying how to create a range of conditions that help programs deliver on the desired outcomes. These can include setting out the right kinds of partnerships, types of forums, particular kinds of technical assistance, and tools and processes that help people operate more collaboratively and be more results focused.

The importance of the concept was well illustrated in a 1995 paper – Nothing as Practical as Good Theory: Exploring Theory-Based Evaluation. In that paper, Carol Weiss, hypothesized that a key reason complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. She argued that stakeholders of complex community initiatives typically are unclear about how the change process will unfold and therefore place little attention to the early and mid-term changes that need to happen in order for a longer term goal to be reached. The lack of clarity about the ‘mini-steps’ that must be taken to reach a long term outcome not only makes the task of evaluating a complex initiative challenging, but reduces the likelihood that all of the important factors related to the long term goal will be addressed.

Weiss popularized the term ‘Theory of Change’ as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the mini-steps that lead to the long term goal of interest and the connections between program activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way. She challenged designers of complex community-based initiatives to be specific about the theories of change guiding their work and suggested that doing so would improve their overall evaluation plans and would strengthen their ability to claim credit for outcomes that were predicted in their theory. Over subsequent years a number of evaluations have been developed around this approach, fueling more interest in the field about its value.

A theory of change is usually presented in a visual diagram (or logic model) that allows the reader to see the big picture quickly. It does not usually provide a specific implementation plan. The purpose of the process is to allow people to think about what must be changed before doing it.

Theory of change is both a process and a product (Vogel 2012).

At its simplest, theory of change is a dialogue-based process intended to generate a ‘description of a sequence of events that is expected to lead to a particular desired outcome.’ This description is usually captured in a diagram (or logic model) and narrative to provide a guiding framework of the change model showing how and why the desired goals can be reached by the project team and stakeholders. Acknowledging ToC as a process reminds us that a ToC inquiry is an ongoing process of analysis and reflection. It is not a one-off exercise to design (or evaluate) an initiative, but implies an ongoing learning and adaptive management cycle.

In brief, a theory of change starts by identifying a clear ultimate goal and working backwards to establish preconditions for reaching that goal. At each step any assumptions are examined. The next step is to identify indicators. Only when these steps have been completed are the activities or interventions identified. Finally a narrative is drafted to explain the theory of change in everyday language. As Vogel points out, developing a theory of change requires discussion between the different stakeholders groups of the following elements (in order):

  • the context for the initiative, including social, political and environmental conditions, the current state of the problem the project is seeking to influence and other actors able to influence change;
  • the long-term outcomes that the initiative seeks to support and for whose ultimate benefit;
  • the broad sequence of events anticipated (or required) to lead to the desired long-term outcome;
  • the assumptions about how these changes might happen, and about contextual drivers that may affect whether the activities and outputs are appropriate for influencing the desired changes in this context;
  • a diagram (logic model) and narrative summary that represents the sequence and captures the discussion.

The main benefit of theory of change comes from making different views and assumptions about the change process explicit, especially seemingly obvious ones. A good theory of change can specify how to create a range of conditions that help programs deliver on the desired outcomes. These can include setting out the right kinds of partnerships, types of forums, particular kinds of technical assistance, and tools and processes that help people operate more collaboratively and be more results focused. The purpose of doing so is to help program staff and stakeholders to check that programs are appropriate, debate them and enrich them to strengthen project design and implementation. For this reason, theory of change as a process emphasizes the importance of dialogue with stakeholders, acknowledging multiple viewpoints and recognition of power relations, as well as political, social and environmental realities in the context.

Subsequent outcomes-based posts look more specifically at developing logic models and working with outcomesA range of links to online material can be found from the Theory of Change page and the related Managing for outcomes: using logic modeling page.

[Note: An initial version of this post was first posted on the Learning for Sustainability sparksforchange blog in February 2013.]

Share

An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.

3 Comments on “Using a theory of change (ToC) to better understand your program

  1. Hi Will. This is a great introduction to using a theory of change. I think there is additional value to using a theory of change, beyond articulating assumptions. It is the opportunity this approach enables to draw upon, or critique using ‘mid-level’ or generic theories derived from academic research and conceptualisation.

    There are some well-established theories of human and organisational behaviour change that can guide actions and help articulate associated outcomes. Likewise, the area of implementation science throws up principals for action that are more likely to ensure the success of a policy or programme. Hence, a theory of change doesn’t have to, nor should it start with a clean slate. It should ideally draw on what we know or find most plausible in general terms (from experience, and from formal research and theorising), as well as taking into account the specific context which requires some nuance to local action in order to get to outcomes. There are also mid-level theories about what constitute meaningful outcomes depending on intention.

    In recent evaluation and theory of change work that I’ve been doing, for instance, I’ve drawn on, amongst other resources:
    – the ‘Behaviour Change Wheel,’ and the ‘Behaviour Change Ball’ developed respectively by Michie et al, and Hendriks at al. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also has a website providing pathways to behaviour change.
    – the implementation framework synthesised by the Parenting Research Centre in Australia
    – the Impact, Influence, Leverage and Leaning (I2L2) outcomes framework, which is relevant to actions directed at community and systems level change.

    Michie, S., Atkins, L. & West, R. (2014). The Behaviour Change Wheel: A Guide to Designing Interventions. http://www.behaviourchangewheel.com/online-book

    Hendriks et al. (2013). Proposing a conceptual framework for integrated local public health policy, applied to childhood obesity – the behavior change ball. Implementation Science 2013, 8:46.
    http://www.implementationscience.com/content/pdf/1748-5908-8-46.pdf

    Parenting Research Centre (2013, January). Implementation Matters: Using implementation frameworks to improve outcomes for children and families
    http://www.micahprojects.org.au/resource_files/micah/IR_107_Implementation-Matters29Jan2012.pdf

    Reisman, J., Gienapp, A. & Kelly, T. (2015, Nov.) I2L2: Impact=Influence+Leverage+Laerning: A Formula for Change. http://orsimpact.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/I2L2_LAYOUT_3B.pdf

    NICE (2016). Behaviour change overview. http://pathways.nice.org.uk/pathways/behaviour-change

  2. Thank you for the info to discuss briefly on what is yeiry if change. But I hope that there will be a discussion on the categories of the theory of change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

Theory of change

Theories of Change consider a number of key elements that support program understanding.
Community-based change initiatives often have ambitious goals, and so planning specific on-the-ground strategies to those goals is difficult. Likewise, the task of planning and carrying out evaluation research that can inform practice and surface broader lessons for the field in general is a challenge. Theories of change (ToC) are vital to programme success for a number of reasons. Programmes need to be grounded in good theory. By developing a theory of change based on good theory, managers can be better assured that their programmes are delivering the right activities for the desired outcomes. And by creating a theory of change programmes are easier to sustain, bring to scale, and evaluate, since each step – from the ideas behind it, to the outcomes it hopes to provide, to the resources needed – are clearly defined within the theory. Within this wider framework logic or outcomes models are very closely related, often being used to take a more narrowly practical look at the relationship between inputs and results. A good place to start is with this LfS posting – An introduction to ‘theory of change’. Below are annotated links to a number of useful online ToC resources:


Unpacking the Theory of Change
Maoz Brown (2020) Stanford Social Innovation Review
The term “theory of change” is as popular as it is confusing. By gaining a clearer understanding of its various interpretations, practitioners in the social sector can more effectively implement and assess their interventions. The author provides a grid to remind us of the different meanings funders or colleagues can have in their head when they ask about your theory of change – are they talking about a mission statement in fancy terms, or are they referring mainly to a logic model, or are they looking for alignment with evidence on outcomes, or maybe they are seeking a review of effective methods? Or (hopefully) does their understanding of a ToC encompass more than one portion of the grid?


Change theory and theory of change: what’s the difference anyway?
Daniel Reinholz & Tessa Andrews (2020) International Journal of STEM Education
This essay describes the connections between a theory of change and change theory and provides examples of how change theory can inform a project’s theory of change. A theory of change is project-specific and related to evaluation. It makes the underlying rationale of a project explicit, which supports planning, implementation, and assessment of the project. In contrast, change theories represent theoretical and empirically grounded knowledge about how change occurs that goes beyond any one project. Ideally, a theory of change is informed by change theories.


Theories of change in sustainability science: Understanding how change happens
Christoph Oberlack et al. (2019) GAIA
This paper argues that ToCs constitute tools that can and should be applied more extensively to  strengthen the relevance, reflexivity, learning ability, and effectiveness of sustainability science. The authors first propose an understanding of ToCs in sustainability science and illustrate their diversity. They then present ten propositions on how to leverage the potentials and to confront the challenges of working with ToCs in sustainability science.


Guidance on how to develop complex interventions to improve health and healthcare
This 2019 paper by Alicia O’Cathain and colleagues aims to provide researchers with guidance on actions to take during intervention development. The authors present key principles and actions for consideration when developing interventions to improve health or other complex settings. These include seeing intervention development as a dynamic iterative process, involving stakeholders, reviewing published research evidence, drawing on existing theories, articulating programme theory, undertaking primary data collection, understanding context, paying attention to future implementation in the real world and designing and refining an intervention using iterative cycles of development with stakeholder input throughout.


Using actor-based theories of change to conduct robust contribution analysis in complex settings
Andrew Koleros & John Mayne (2019) Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation
As interventions have become more complex, the development of ToCs that adequately unpack this complexity has become more challenging. Equally important is the development of evaluable ToCs, necessary for conducting robust theory-based evaluation approaches such as contribution analysis (CA). This article explores one approach to tackling these challenges through the use of nested actor-based ToCs.


Contribution Analysis and Estimating the Size of Effects: Can We Reconcile the Possible with the Impossible?
Giel Ton and colleagues (2019) CDI Practice Paper 20, Brighton: IDS
Contribution analysis starts with a process to depict an intended change process as a sequence of events, with due attention to contextual influences. In analysing and verifying this theory of change (ToC), an evaluation that uses contribution analysis assesses whether an intervention is a contributory cause, and how and why the intervention made a difference. Contribution analysis provides a general framework rather than a detailed methodology, with six steps in an iterative cycle of reflection about and refinement of ToCs.


Refining Theories of Change
Lovely Dhillon and Sara Vaca (2018) AEA blog post 
The authors propose: i) propose the essential elements that contribute to robust Theories of Change and clarify the characteristics that distinguish these from other organizational tools and formats; ii) suggest additional elements for inclusion in the ToC; iii) present graphic alternatives that allow for an evolution in representing their complexity and depth; and iv) provide ways to link ToCs to other organizational tools to increase organizational alignment, efficiency, and, most importantly, impact.


The Truth of the Work: Theories of Change in a changing world
2017 paper [PDF] by Doug Reeler and Rubert Van Blerk 
This paper provides a powerful commentary on the need to actively involve people (donors, partners and beneficiaries) not just in the doing of projects – but also in the learning and theorizing about  what works and what doesn’t. They emphasize the need to concentrate on “the truth of the work itself” – so that with learning and reflection we can, as true partners, meet our shared, complex realities to navigate our ways creatively into the future.


How Decision Support Systems can benefit from a Theory of Change approach
2017 paper [PDF] by Will Allen, Jen Cruz & Bruce Warburton
Illustrates how to use an outcomes-based approach – Theory of Change (ToC) – in conjunction with DSS development to support both wider problem-framing and outcomes-based monitoring and evaluation.


Representing Theories of Change: A Technical Challenge with Evaluation Consequences
This 2018 paper by Rick Davies looks at the technical issues associated with the representation of Theories of Change and the implications of design choices for the evaluability of those theories. Using examples and evidence from Internet sources six structural problems are described along with their consequences for evaluation. The paper then outlines a range of different ways of addressing these problems which could be used by programme designers, implementers and evaluators.


Hivos ToC Guidelines: Theory of Change thinking in practice
Guide [PDF] by Marjan van Es, Irene Guijt, and Isabel Vogel
This guide aims to support Hivos staff in applying a ToC approach as intended and set out in Hivos’ policy brief: ‘Hivos and Theory of Change’. Recognizes that a theory of change approach can be used for different purposes, by different users, and at different moments in the cycle of developing, monitoring, reviewing or evaluating a program or strategy.


Assumptions, conjectures, and other miracles: The application of evaluative thinking to theory of change models in community development
2016 paper [PDF] by Thomas Archibald and colleagues
Unexamined and unjustified assumptions are the Achilles’ heel of many research and development programs. In this paper, the authors describe a ToC approach designed to help community development practitioners work more effectively with assumptions through the intentional infusion of evaluative thinking into the program planning, monitoring, and evaluation process. The authors show how the use of ToC models can encourage individual and organizational learning and adaptive management that supports more reflective and responsive program development.


Related site information: An accompanying page presents links to some older – but still useful – resources on Theories of Change.

You may also be interested in links to resources on logic or outcomes modelling, or the related topic of indicator development. Another related page can be found in the knowledge management section with links on how best to develop conceptual models.

Share

An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.