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 evaluation 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 introduction to ‘theory of change’ hosted here on the LfS blog page. Below are annotated links to a number of online ToC resources:


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.


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
Shows how the use of ToC models can encourage individual and organizational learning and adaptive management that supports more reflective and responsive program development.


Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning, or Accountability?
2014 paper [PDF] by Craig Valters
Argues that while a Theory of Change approach can create space for critical reflection, this requires a much broader commitment to learning from individuals, organisations, and the development sector itself. Six key lessons are developed to support useful ToC practice.


Learning about Theories of Change for the Monitoring and Evaluation of Research Uptake
2013 practice paper brief by Chris Barnett and Robbie Gregorowski
This paper captures lessons from recent experiences on using ‘theories of change’ amongst organisations involved in the research–policy interface. The literature in this area reminds us that given the complexity inherent in many initiatives in which ToC are used – rather than overcomplicating a static depiction of change at the start (to be evaluated at the end), incentives need to be in place to regularly collect evidence around the theory, test it periodically, and then reflect and reconsider its relevance and assumptions.


Theory of Change Technical Papers – ActKnowledge
2013 report by Dana Taplin and colleagues
ActKnowledge uses TOC as a foundation for organizational capacity building, clarifying goals, evaluation and organization change.This report provides some short papers to support development of Theories of Change based on practice in the field. The related page –  ActKnowledge guides to Theory of Change (TOC) methodology – provides downloads of a range of their ToC publications – providing guides and technical papers.


ESPA guide to working with Theory of Change for research projects
Isabel Vogel (2012) ESPA guide report
Explains what the theory of change approach is about, its benefits and uses. It explains the key conceptual and practical points to consider for developing, working with and indeed challenging and testing the theory of change throughout the lifetime of a project. It also outlines how to develop a theory of change that is of high-quality but is tailored to the context and needs of research projects. The guide is divided into three sections. Sections A and B offer a tailored approach for ESPA research teams. Sections C and D present practical tips and resources for those wishing to learn more about theory of change.


Understanding ‘Theory of Change’ in international development: A review of existing knowledge
This 2012 report by Danielle Stein and Craig Valters
provides a review of the many concepts and common debates within ‘Theory of Change’ (ToC) material. The authors acknowledge that it is commonly understood as an articulation of how and why a given intervention will lead to specific change. They identify four main purposes of ToC – strategic planning, description, monitoring and evaluation and learning – although these inevitably overlap. They also identify the lack of clarity surrounding the use of the terms ‘assumption’ and ‘evidence’. Finally, they draw out information on what authors feel makes for ToC ‘best practice’ in terms of both content and process, alongside an exploration of the remaining gaps where more clarity is needed.


Theory of Change review
This 2011 report by Cathy James aims to draw together Comic Relief staff and partners’ experiences in using theory of change; to identify others in development that are using theory of change and analyse their different approaches and experience; and to capture learning from everyone to promote debate, and to help inform what agencies using or advocating for the use of theory of change do next.


Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development
[Isabel Vogel (2012) DFID review report] This report focuses on the practical aspects of working with theory of change in programmes. The review report is structured around nine topics that were identified through scoping interviews with key DFID staff and partners. To assist the reader, for each topic, key points are highlighted at the start of each section, the findings illustrated with examples. Practical suggestions are highlighted. Box examples are also provided to illustrate people’s experience, from donors to implementing agencies and projects. The appendices contain more examples of documented theories of change and also guidelines and tools to support people working with theory of change.


Using Programme Theory to Evaluate Complicated and Complex Aspects of Interventions
[Patricia Rogers (2008) journal paper] This paper proposes ways to use programme theory for evaluating aspects of programmes that are complicated or complex. It argues that there are useful distinctions to be drawn between aspects that are complicated and those that are complex, and provides examples of programme theory evaluations that have usefully represented and address both of these. While complexity has been defined in varied ways in previous discussions of evaluation theory and practice, this article draws on Glouberman and Zimmerman’s conceptualization of the differences between what is complicated (multiple components) and what is complex (emergent). Readers may also want to visit the LfS page Is the system complex or complicated? for more resources in this area.


The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change; A Practical Guide to Theory Development
This guide by Andrea A. Anderson is for planners and evaluators who are going to facilitate a process for creating a theory of change with community-based programs and community change initiatives. The guide is in two sections. Section One answers the question ‘What is a theory of change?’. It provides all the information needed to facilitate a theory of change process with a community group. Section Two is a resource toolbox for the theory of change facilitator.


Theory of Change: A Practical Tool For Action, Results and Learning
This manual was prepared by Organizational Research Services (ORS) in Seattle Washington and written by Jane Reisman, Anne Gienapp and colleagues. It is designed as a practical guide to help develop a therory of change with a number of worksheets.


Theory of Change Tool Manual
This manual has been developed by the International Network on Strategic Philanthropy(INSP). The Tool allows users to create a framework or model of change, also known as a “theory of change” or “logic model” which maps out how your program or initiative plans on getting from present conditions to your vision of success. It provides a guide – with worksheets – for planning, implementing, and evaluating your initiative or effort. Once completed, it provides a picture of how your program or initiative will bring about change in order to accomplish an identified goal. This Tool was specifically designed for use by organizations such as Foundations, Trustees, NGOs, and individuals such as donors, philanthropists or consultants to facilitate the development of a Theory of Change, the first step in strategic philanthropy. As the authors point out, as assets continue to shrink, the strategic, conscientious, and thoughtful use of resources is vital. Research, planning, collaboration, monitoring, and evaluation are key components of the work, particularly as all parties are seeking the maximum benefit from social investing.


Mapping Change Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation
This guide was written by Anne Mackinnon and Natasha Amott and is part of the GrantCraft series. It begins by showing how, by mapping a process of change from beginning to end, a theory of change establishes a blueprint for the work ahead and anticipates its likely effects. A theory of change also reveals what should be evaluated, when, and how. The guide then looks at why would a grant maker develop and use a theory of change, and goes on to answer a number of common questions that are asked about the process.


Theory of change: monitoring and evaluation
In this podcast Andrew Clappison explains how your theory of change can be adapted into an effective means of monitoring and evaluating your success. This podcast is of real value to those people who have developed a theory of change, but are unclear on how to monitor and evaluate their progress against it.


Making Connections: Using a theory of change to develop planning and evaluation
This 2011 guide was written by Jean Ellis, Diana Parkinson and Avan Wadia for Charities Evaluation Services’ (CES) National Performance Programme. It aims to provide an introduction to the ‘theory of change’ approach to planning, monitoring and evaluation. It looks to help the reader: i) understand what the theory of change is, ii) see how it fits with other models of planning and evaluation, iii) decide whether it is the right model for your organisation, and iv) develop your own theory of change.


Related site information: An accompanying page presents a range of resource links on logic or outcomes modelling.You may also be interested in 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.

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