• Michelle Molina

What is a Theory of Change?


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A theory of change outlines how a nonprofit’s work leads to change. Developing a theory of change will help you:

Describe your work to others

Think strategically about activities

Ensure your team has a shared vision

Plan programs

Highlight your nonprofit’s priorities

Identify what to evaluate

Although you may already understand how your programs lead to change, spending the time to clarify, refine, and writing your vision down is key. However, a theory of change helps you get it down on paper. This helps make sure that you and your team have a shared vision and are better prepared to describe your work to others. Next time a potential funder (or anyone else) asks how your nonprofit’s work makes an impact on the lives of people you serve, you’ll be able to clearly describe how your work leads to outcomes.

What are outcomes?

Before we talk about what a theory of change is, it’s important to understand what outcomes are, as they are key pieces of your theory. Outcomes are the changes you hope to see in your participants. These are often changes in attitude, knowledge, or behavior. You may think of outcomes as your programs’ goals. You will want to get as specific as possible – especially during internal discussions.

It’s also important to work with stakeholders as you clarify outcomes. This will make sure you’re both working towards the same vision. For example, do your stakeholders (e.g. staff, volunteers, funders, etc.) agree on what outcomes mean? If one of your outcomes is increasing leadership skills, do you and others agree on what leadership skills are. Working on a theory of change will give you the opportunity to have these discussions and ensure you're all on the same page.

What does a theory of change look like?

A theory of change can take many forms. It can be a narrative, but often nonprofits create visual representations of their theory of change. Visual representations, like logic models or pathway models, are flow-charts depicting how activities and outcomes are interconnected.

What is a Logic Model?

A logic model is a very common form of a theory of change. It is usually composed of five components:

Impact statement

A (3 – 4 sentence) statement describing your participants, your activities, and why you do this work.

Inputs

Resources needed (or at your disposal) to run your program. These are usually personnel, funding, or supplies.

Activities

A list of your activities. That is, the things you do to create change.

Outputs

Quantification of the activities. For example, if your activity is a leadership course you may list the number of classes a year, the number of sessions each course has, and/or the number of participants that will attend each.

Outcomes

Changes you hope to see in participants. These may be organized into short-term, intermediate, and long-term.

Developing a logic model can be very useful. A lot of funding opportunities are starting to ask nonprofits to either provide a logic model or to describe components of a logic model. Why not start now and get ahead of the curve?

What is a Pathway model?

Pathway models show the path from activities to long-term outcomes. You’ll notice that they are very similar to logic models. They have three major components:

Activities

A list of your activities. That is, the things you do to create change.

Outcomes

Changes you hope to see in participants. These may be organized into short-term, intermediate, and long-term.

Connections or Links

Connections between activities and outcomes.

A pathway model will help you think about how your program leads to change. You’ll be able to see how outcomes are interconnected and find potential leaps in logic. This could be a catalyst to improving your work in and of itself.

How do I develop a theory of change?

Here, I’ll go into detail on how you can develop a pathway model. Before you start, know that developing a great theory of change may take more than one sitting. So, it’s important to be patient.

Remember a theory of change depicts how your nonprofit believes it creates change. This may change as your programs change. It may also change as you collect data and gain a better understanding of how change happens. Therefore, your theory of change should be a working document. It doesn't have to be perfect, you can edit it as you learn more.

As you work on your theory of change you may start to notice program principals and assumptions you and others have about your program. Principals are present during all (or several) activities because you work to implement them and are needed for your program to succeed. One example, may be creating a safe space where participants can learn. Assumptions are thoughts or ideas you take for granted about how your program works. You can think of these as blind-spots. For instance, your training properly prepares workshop leaders to convey the information to participants. Some assumptions will need to be explored, while others will not. I will review principals and assumptions at another time, but it may be helpful to keep a running list of any you notice while you're building your pathway model.

Participants

Invite key stakeholders. These stakeholders should be able to understand your program and help you brainstorm, make decisions, or provide a different perspective. You may ask some to help you build the model. While others will be better at giving feedback or new insights.

You don’t have to limit your stakeholders to staff members. Consider inviting others who care about your program: volunteers, participants, funders, etc. Whatever makes the most sense for your program.

Materials:

Note cards, flip chart paper, and pencils

Instructions:

Set time aside (1 or 2 hours at a time)

If you’re working in a group, come ready for discussion.

Keep an open mind and be patient.

Brainstorm outcomes

Use the note cards to list as many outcomes as possible. Use one note card per outcome.

Ask: What changes in knowledge, attitude or behavior do I expect to see?

Discuss:

Look at the outcomes you and other stakeholders identified. Talk about the overlap between your outcomes. Make sure that are referring to the same things. As in the example above, if your outcome is increasing leadership skills make sure you are all in agreement on what it means to have leadership skills.

Remember:

You can add or remove outcomes as you go along.

It’s okay to think very long-term.

Don’t limit yourself by what you can measure! You don’t have to measure everything.

List activities

Use the note cards to list your activities.

Ask:

What does our program do to cause change?

What do our participants participate in?

Remember:

It will help to have clearly defined activities. This doesn’t have to be part of the visual representation of your theory of change, but it will be helpful to write down details: who participates, what they participate in, for how long, etc.

Some programs are made of more than one activity.

Organize Outcomes

Connect Short-Term Outcomes to Activities (or Other Short-Term Outcomes)

Draw connections between your activities and short term outcomes. Put the cards on the flip chart paper, you can draw the lines on the sheet.

Short-term outcomes take place right after your activities. Review your list to find those outcomes. If you don’t already have them listed, feel free to add them.

Ask:

When participants finish [insert any activity] what changes will have happened?

Ex. When participants finish the workshop on leadership components what changes will have happened?

Remember: You can add and remove outcomes as you go along.

Connect Intermediate Outcomes

Draw connections between intermediate outcomes and short-term outcomes (and even other intermediate outcomes).

Ask:

What happens right after [insert any short-term outcome]?

Ex. What happens right after youth are aware of leadership components?

Why do we want to see [insert any short-term outcome] happen?

Ex. Why do we want to see youth being aware of leadership components?

Connect Long-Term Outcomes

Draw connections between intermediate outcomes and long-term outcomes.

Ask:

What happens after [insert any intermediate outcome]?

Ex. What happens after youth feel empowered to take on leadership roles?

Why do we want to see [insert any intermediate outcome] happen?

Ex. Why do we want to see youth feeling empowered to take on leadership roles?

Remember:

Long-term outcomes take time to happen. These changes are usually broader. They may extend past your participants, and can take years to take place. For example, a better community is an outcome one program I've worked with selected.

Review Model

Look at your pathway model and consider how your activities and outcomes fit together. Try to find places where it can be improved. Once you initially organized your outcomes it may be a good idea to take a break. It will be easier to spot places to make changes with fresh eyes.

Ask:

Do the connections between outcomes make sense?

Can any outcomes be combined?

Are there any outcomes missing? If so, where do they fit in?

Revisit the Model

During this step, you are looking for leaps in logic. Or places where someone could potentially question how two outcomes are connected. Your theory of change should make sense to people outside of your organization. This is a good point to ask people who didn’t help build the model for feedback, because some connections may seem obvious to you. You don't want to be like the guy in the picture below. Often, you'll need to clarify your language or add outcomes.

Ask:

Once participants achieve [insert outcome] will they be able to achieve [insert

outcome]?

How does [insert outcome] lead to [Insert outcome]? Is there another outcome in-between?

Now what? Where does evaluation fit in?

Once your model is done you can use it in a lot of ways. My favorite is to identify outcomes you should be measuring. You don't need to measure everything in our model at all times. Instead you will probably want to work your way from left to right. Or identify key outcomes: outcomes that lead to many others, those especially important to your stakeholders, or outcomes that will help you make decisions.

Once you identify which outcomes you want to explore you can begin thinking about how to measure them. You (or your evaluator) can review the academic literature to investigate how others have measured this outcome. How you measure an outcome will depend on the outcome itself, your resources, and your program's lifecycle.

Download a One-page Summary on Building a Pathway Model

Other Theory of Change Resources

The Workbook for the Systems Evaluation Protocol

Provides worksheets and instructions that will help you describe your organization's system. This includes building a pathway model.

Monica J. Hargraves and Jane C. Buckly, Editors. (2015) Workbook For the Systems Evaluation Protocol. Cornell Office for Research on Evaluation, Ithaca, NY.

https://core.human.cornell.edu/documents/Workbook_1.1_covered.pdf

The Netway

A web-based program that allows you to easily create a pathway model. Once you have a draft of your model you can use this program to create a digital version.

https://www.evaluationnetway.com/

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