Long read: Theories of change are here to stay

Some things come in and out of fashion and some things endure. And the theory of change approach has been around long enough* now for us to be confident that it is valuable. At NPC we use the term ‘theory of change’ as a catch-all for any process that tries to describe how a project or organisation intends to achieve social impact. We have supported a range of organisations to develop theories of change, and have seen its benefits time and time again. In short, it helps teams to:

  • be clear about their aims, goals, desired consequences, and is an important part of developing effective strategies and programmes (as described in our guide What makes a good charity?);
  • communicate with others about the activities and aims of a programme or organisation;
  • design monitoring and evaluation activities—by directing them towards what needs to be tested; and
  • assess the extent to which a project has been effective and where it can be improved (in conjunction with actual data).

The incontrovertible point is that if you want to positively impact on individuals, communities or the environment you must spend some time thinking about the best way to do it.

Granted, there are some challenges to the theory of change approach.

Some see theory of change as too complex, jargonny—even that it encourages people to see evaluation as a specialist activity that shouldn’t involve them. But, done properly, theory of change should actually help and encourage people to get involved. My favourite theory of change experiences are with front-line staff who love to talk about what they achieve and what makes their work effective. The trick is to pitch the questions right, and concentrate on listening to people rather than getting bogged down in the terminology or agonising over drawing neat diagrams.

Conversely, others think that the theories of change developed by charities are not complex enough, and that they need to be based on academic research literature. We’d love to see much stronger links between academic theory and charitable practice. The problem is that this is harder to do, and that a lot of the benefits described above can be gained from a more basic process that at least outlines and organises people’s thinking. So our message to charities is to start with your own theory of change and aim to refine it as you learn more from the research.

We need to acknowledge that theories of change present a simplified view of the world. We should not allow ourselves to think that all service users will progress through our theories of change in a uniform way. Rather the theory is an archetype that sets out what we broadly want to happen. Our data analysis should then explore the actual experiences of individuals and subgroups; to understand for whom the theory ‘works’ and for whom it does not.

Another common challenge is that theories of change can be divorced from context; ie, a model can be logical but doesn’t stand up against challenges in the real world. Again, we agree, and in our recent paper for education start-ups we say that the best way to start a theory of change processes is with a thorough consideration of peoples’ lives, their needs and the barriers they face. This then leads to the question ‘what might be most effective given these circumstances?’

Related to this we think that theory of change processes need to address how change occurs. It has always bothered me when important things are relegated to the status of an ‘assumption’ (seemingly because they don’t seem to fit anywhere else). For example, assuming people will engage with your programme, or assuming how they will engage. I prefer to see these things as the main thing programmes need to deliver on if they are to be effective, and should therefore be at the heart of any theory of change. In other words, the best theories of change need to describe context and mechanisms for change, as well as outcomes.

There are some criticisms of the theory of change approach that we feel are misdirected or a bit exaggerated

We think these misgivings about theory of change relate either to how it is deployed or are misdirected.

The theory of change process is divorced from service users, a management exercise. Sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing to stop organisations involving service users and other stakeholders. In fact, the process of developing a theory of change process is a good platform for these conversations.

Theories of change are static and do not help continuous improvement. This indicates a deeper problem in the organisation’s culture rather than a function of having a theory of change.

Being theoretical puts peoples’ heads in the clouds and stops them from being practical. We find this argument a bit strange. A good theory of change should help you to be practical because it establishes a common understanding of what is important to do and to measure, both day-to-day and in the long run. Moreover, there is nothing in the theory of change approach that says you have to be purist about how you measure things. Quite the opposite: it encourages you to use any data sources you have to compare the theory to reality.

People might think that a theory of change is all they need to do, and not bother to test themselves with data collection. Apart from a couple of exceptions we don’t see much evidence of this. Most people appreciate that a theory of change is not a replacement for evidence but the first step towards it.

Theories of change are used to justify rather than challenge activities, or that they blind us to failure. This is conceivable but I think it’s rare. Much more often we find that the process can raise important strategic challenges—especially if you remember to ask where the theory is weak and what the unintended consequences might be. Ultimately the way to ensuring your theory of change is more than just hot air is effective data collection; which should challenge both implementation and theory. I like the way Michael Quinn Pattern characterises theory as the ‘hope’ and regular data collection as the ‘reality’.

It is perhaps because theory of change is so important that its use gets abstracted: it gets mistaken for an end goal, rather than a means to an end.

We think these last few challenges to the theory of change approach relate either to how it is deployed or are misdirected, and are really more about data collection and evaluation practice generally. For me, the incontrovertible point is that if you want to positively impact on individuals, communities or the environment you must spend some time thinking, or theorising, about the best way to do it. Without this process you risk incoherence and inconsistency, and it’s more likely you will achieve nothing or even do harm.

It is perhaps because theory of change is so important that its use gets abstracted: it gets mistaken for an end goal, rather than a means to an end—and this makes it an easy target. But I don’t believe charities have become overly dependent on theories of change or that they are getting in the way of effective monitoring and evaluation. The theory of change approach is needed. So let’s work to improve the way the approach is used rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because we think it’s here to stay.

*In their book Purposive Programme Theory (2011) Sue Funnel and Patricia Rogers traced its origins back to Don Kirkpatrick in 1959 / 1960 and describe how the evaluation community caught-on in the 1970s and 1980s, with charities starting to develop them since the 1990s.

One Comment

  1. Well put, James – Thanks for tackling some of the ToC critique in a thoughtful way. The impact and outcomes mindset of which ToCs are an invaluable part has done so much to improve the effectiveness of social sector activities and accountability. I definitely see misunderstandings and misuse, particularly where there is a failure of evidence/research to support ambit claims in the ToC logic. But by sticking with simple questions ‘How?’, ‘How can we know that?’ etc, I have found that this can be worked through, and the process of refinement brings a much more robust program and service. In this way, research and evidence doesn’t lead to more abstract or less usable ToC’s but rather ensures they aren’t simply based on generalisations and thought bubbles, allowing the program to actually do what it sets out to do.

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