Theory of change – a critical tool for development professionals


6th Nov 2019

Theory of change – a critical tool for development professionals

Theory of change – a critical tool for development professionals

The theory of change concept was originally developed to model and evaluate complex change initiatives, so it is closely related to systems change.

The Aspen Roundtable on Community Change – which pioneered theory of change in the 1990s—has used it to explore areas like tackling systemic racism or promoting equitable economic development. Over time this practice became widely adopted and more organisations started to use the theory of change to design and evaluate strategies for influencing social change in areas from domestic violence to disability rights.

As a process, a theory of change can:

  • help organisations think through what they do and why
  • reveal assumptions and flaws in logic
  • engage staff and stakeholders, providing a sense of common purpose
  • test the rationale for what an organisation does
  • structure an impact measurement framework

Above all, developing a theory of change provides a precious opportunity for a moment of reflection that can rejuvenate an organisation’s sense of purpose.

However, not everyone agrees that a theory of change is a valuable tool.  Critics argue that a theory of change suffers from pitfalls including:

  • placing the organisation at the centre of a picture whilst neglecting context emphasising how we seek to change others, rather than turning the mirror on ourselves
  • encouraging us to think in linear terms, with simple cause and effect
  • becoming a ‘safety tool’—a fixed plan that ironically provides the excuse not to adapt when things change in the world
  • seeing change as technical, emphasising inputs and outputs rather than people and relationships

Systemic change requires deep thought

Creating long-term, systemic change requires a deep understanding of the complex mechanics of impact and change—of when and how to move the human, financial, and even intellectual resources needed to accomplish the goal. It requires not only a strategy but a well-constructed plan for implementing that strategy, one that anticipates the likely necessity of adapting the implementation plan in response to realities on the ground. In short – a theory of change has almost become a prerequisite for the social investment and development sectors.

  • A theory of change is a clear statement describing an organization’s approach to creating social change, which links its big-picture mission and strategy to its program operations on the ground.
  • A theory includes a description of the organisation’s target population, intended outcomes, codified program activities, indicators, measurement tools and uses of data.
  • A theory of change provides a complete framework for understanding why the organisation exists, what success looks like, how the organisation creates value for its intended stakeholders and how it can use data to improve its mission attainment.
  • A theory of change is the key foundation of organisational performance management, using key data to drive decision making toward improved effectiveness on the mission.
  • A strong theory of change requires surfacing hidden assumptions and challenges from people in different roles, levels, and perspectives within the organisation, facilitating agreement between them, and negotiating shared commitment among them.

Moving from strategy to implementation requires integrated solutions

Transforming ideas into impact requires more than just a theory of how change happens. It also requires a set of integrated, sequenced, and high-quality resources—the investment of significant human, financial, and organizational capacity—deployed over time and supported by ongoing learning, recalibration, and continuous improvement.

In other words, theories of change are, at best, just the beginning. They need to be accompanied by actionable plans for embarking on a complex journey that will almost always require adaptation, intelligent course correction, and engaged collaboration with others.  How does (or should) a good theory of change improve our work or add value?

  • A well-designed theory of change encourages deep observation of the development ecosystem – how power is distributed; how decisions are made; what are the coalitions for and against any given change; how is change likely to happen in this system.
  • A well-constructed theory of change makes you think far more about critical junctures/windows of opportunity as an essential component of any change process.
  • A well-thought-out theory of change highlights the importance of working with and brokering discussions between groups who may initially have low levels of trust, (even hostility), but who can come together and find new answers to old problems.
  • An integrated theory of change helps you identify the missing links, knowledge and insights in your thinking – and it guides exploration of guesses and assumptions.
  • An evolving theory of change shifts the emphasis away from a huge exercise in pre-intervention planning, followed by a long and unremitting process of implementation (with a mid and end term evaluation thrown in). Using a theory of change as a baseline and through a process of iteration, we can become much more experimental and iterative in our thinking – to come up with some initial hypotheses to test, but also allowing us to take stock and correcting courses as the project evolves.
  • Lastly, a good theory of change should shift the centre of intellectual engagement from monitoring to learning.

Systems change is helping a range of social purpose organisations, funders and practitioners to deal with the root causes of social problems. The approach requires us not only to understand why difficult social problems persist but also to challenge our own role tackling them—a formidable task.

A theory of change is not a silver bullet for doing this. But applied in the right way it becomes a process of inquiry that asks the searching questions that systems change demands.