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How to build a theory of change

A theory of change shows how you expect outcomes to occur over the short, medium and longer term as a result of your work. It can be represented in a visual diagram, as a narrative, or both.

A theory of change can be developed at the beginning of a piece of work (to help with planning), or to describe an existing piece of work (so you can evaluate it). It is particularly helpful if you are planning or evaluating a complex initiative, but can also be used for more straightforward projects.

It is beneficial to involve a variety of stakeholders when you develop a theory of change – you could include staff, trustees, beneficiaries, partners and funders. The development process, and the thinking involved, is often as important as the diagram or narrative you produce.

A theory of change should be:

  • credible – based on previous experience and insight from your different stakeholders or relevant research where appropriate
  • achievable – you have the necessary resources to carry out the intervention
  • supported – your stakeholders will be involved in defining and agreeing your theory of change
Examples provided in this How To are based on a hypothetical theory of change for a youth unemployment project.
1

Plan your process

Before you start developing your theory of change, it’s important to think carefully about why you’re doing it and how you will go about it. You should consider:

  • who will use the theory of change and what for.
  • whether you need a simple change model or a more detailed, complex one.
  • how much time your organisation can commit to the process.
  • which individual or team in your organisation will lead the work, and whether you will involve an external consultant. Having a consultant to run a theory of change development workshop can be helpful, as it allows all staff to participate (rather than facilitating). A consultant can also bring a helpful external perspective, but bear in mind that they don’t know your organisation’s work as well as you, so you will need to spend time briefing them and reviewing their work.
  • how you will involve your stakeholders: staff, volunteers, trustees, beneficiaries and partners may all offer useful perspectives. Involving a mixed group of stakeholders can increase cross-group understanding. However, it may be hard to manage a workshop with all stakeholders so you could think about involving some groups separately.
2

Agree your intended impact

The main issue you are addressing with your work should be reflected in its ultimate resolution – this is your intended impact. Your impact is the starting point for your theory of change, the goal towards which everything is directed. Your impact statement should clearly describe the broad or long-term difference you want to see happen.

You may also want to think about how your impact statement fits in with local strategic priorities or funding programmes, so that you can place your work in a wider context. This could involve looking for relevant research or identifying connections between your work and those broader priorities.

Example

The intended impact might be a ‘reduction in youth unemployment in the local area’. Other impacts that need to occur before this can happen are that ‘young people get sustainable jobs’ and ‘young people remain in jobs’.

3

Articulate your long-term outcomes

Next, work backwards from your impact to think about the changes that need to happen in order to achieve it. You may be able to identify these by thinking about the causes of the main issue you are trying to address with your work.

For example, if one element of the problem of youth unemployment is that young people become discouraged and de-motivated by their experience of looking for work, your theory may suggest developing a stronger sense of their potential place in a working environment. In order to do that, young people should gain some experience of work placements. Therefore, ‘young people increase their job-specific skills and experience’ becomes one of your long-term outcomes.

As you develop your long-term outcomes, it may be helpful to think about the different areas in which change could occur. Changes for individuals might be in their:

  • situation (eg housing, employment)
  • wellbeing (eg mental or physical heath)
  • behaviour (eg involvement in crime, drug use)
  • attitudes and feelings (eg how people feel about themselves or others)
  • skills and abilities (eg communication skills or ability to work under pressure)
  • relationships (eg with peers, family or at work)

Other changes might be seen in:

  • policy (eg changes in immigration law)
  • environment (eg better access to green spaces)
  • services (eg new services or services delivered in different ways)
  • ways of working (eg new partnerships developed)
  • social norms (eg knowledge, attitudes, values or behaviours).

Example

In order to contribute to our impact, we will need young people to:

  • become more motivated to work
  • become more work ready
  • increase their job-specific skills and experience.
4

Map your intermediate outcomes backwards

Next, work backwards and plot the preceding stages in much greater detail. You will need to consider what changes need to happen before your long-term outcomes can occur.

Example

To achieve our long-term outcome ‘young people become more work ready’, young people will need to:

  • have greater confidence
  • show more appropriate behaviour at work
  • have an increased knowledge of the job market.

There will also be other changes that need to occur before these outcomes can come about.

Once you have defined your outcomes, you can show the order in which they will occur. For each outcome, think about what change will be needed before it can happen, and if and how it relates to other changes.

5

Identify outputs

You are now ready to start thinking about what services and outputs will help you to bring about the outcomes you have identified.

For a new piece of work, this will involve thinking creatively about the outputs that will be most effective in bringing about your desired outcomes, and when they are best delivered. To help with this, you could consider the outcomes you hope will occur through your work, then review external research to see what kinds of outputs have brought about outcomes.

If you are creating a theory of change for an existing project, plot your existing activities and outputs. This is a good chance to discuss how well outputs are delivering your anticipated outcomes and may lead to some revision of what you do, and how you do it.

Remember that some outputs will involve collaboration with other agencies and some outcomes may only be achieved if other services are also involved in some way, so these contact points or joint activities will need to be charted as part of your theory.

Example

We might identify that – in order to increase young people’s understanding of what being in work means – we will need to run a series of talks from employers and employed young people.

6

Clarify assumptions

Next, document any assumptions you may have made as you have been setting out your theory of change. You are likely to have made assumptions about:

  • the links between outputs and the outcomes they are expected to produce 
  • the connections between the long-term, intermediate and early outcomes
  • the contextual or environmental factors that may influence whether outcomes are achieved.

It is important to identify assumptions you have made because:

  • they will help you identify some of the critical factors that will affect the success of your work – you may need to monitor these
  • they will help you shape how you deliver your services to help you maximise your impact
  • you can test out the assumptions as part of your evaluation.

Example

Our assumptions include the following:

  • The target group of young people will respond to outreach and engage with the project.
  • Young people will have sufficiently stable lives to engage productively.
  • Families will get involved and be supportive.
  • The model of peer support will be inspirational.
  • One-to-one work will build confidence and increase learning.
  • Work experience will provide appropriate skills to match available jobs.
  • There are sufficient jobs for the young people.
  • Available jobs will be permanent positions.

When you are developing the first elements of your theory and putting forward assumptions, it may be useful to base these on existing literature, existing practice or expert knowledge. On the other hand, you may be testing a completely new way of doing something and this should be clear in your theory.

7

Establish timelines and plan resources

Write in timelines in your accompanying notes for when you expect to see the activities and outputs happen. This should shape expectations of what can be monitored and when and will help in planning review and evaluation timetables.

If you think through the activities associated with the delivery of your outputs, this will help you to plan the resources you will need and to set a budget for the intervention. Remember to bring to the surface assumptions about the amount of staff and volunteer time that will be needed or about the level of skills that will be necessary and available to you for delivering the intervention. When you evaluate, one question to consider may be whether appropriate resources were planned and delivered.

8

Get ready to use your theory of change

Now you’ve created your theory of change, don’t forget to use it. A theory can help you to plan your project or feed into your organisation’s strategy. It can also help you to communicate succinctly about your work and the change it makes.

If you want to go on to evaluate your work, you can use your theory to help you develop a monitoring and evaluation framework which identifies what information you will collect.

Further information

This How To was contributed by NCVO Charities Evaluation Services.

Contributors

Page last edited Dec 16, 2016 History

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