Where is the Value in a Theory of Change?

11 September 2019

Have you heard of a Theory of Change and wondered how it might be useful for your organisation?

In this article we introduce the concept and give an example of how a Theory of Change can add value to your planning, delivery, evaluation, bids for government or philanthropic funding and communications.

As the name suggests, a Theory of Change is a method of showing how your organisation creates the change that it does, whether that’s reducing homelessness or counselling for anger-management.

A theory of change helps you check, adjust and demonstrate what changes for your participants.

It maps who your participants are, what activities you provide for them and the outputs. Most evaluation and acquittals for funding bodies stop here.

If you report that a workshop you provided to help young unemployed people with job-ready skills was attended by 15 people, this doesn’t answer the key question: Did it change anything for the participants?

That’s why looking at the consequences for those who take part is more informative. Did attending the workshop change anything for them? And if so, was it a short-term change or something that will take longer to be realised?

Knowing the answers to these questions means you can measure your progress (did it work?) and make decisions about planning and delivery (does anything need to be adjusted?). And tell powerful stories.

In planning any program, all organisations make assumptions; about the participants, about systems, timeframes, method of delivery and more.

A Theory of Change helps you:
• Identify your assumptions and test them
• Gather evidence: both that proves your program delivers the change you say it will and for improvements you can make
• Focus on the people, what changes for them and their stories
• Demonstrate and measure the social impact

We recently worked with an organisation that rescues and redistributes food to those in need. Initially the team identified the important benefits to the recipients of the food and the value to the environment of saving the food.

However, through the Theory of Change (ToC) process, they found the biggest change was for volunteers. Their confidence and skills developed to the stage where many were able to then apply for jobs or contribute in other ways to their community, where they had not been able to before.

The manager said going through the ToC process changed how they thought about and managed their organisation. In part, this involved a move from measuring how much food was saved and how many families they provided food to, and instead focusing on ‘what changes for people’ as a result of their service – the social or community impacts. They now use this information in applications for funding and can tell positive stories of impact to their local community.

If you would like to explore how a Theory of Change can be used in your organisation and your communications, please get in touch.