A few years ago, the term ‘theory of change’ meant little to the UK charity sector. Seen as a piece of American evaluation jargon, it did not conjure up much enthusiasm. But today, more and more charities are using theories of change, and more and more funders are asking to see them. So what is a theory of change, and why is it so valuable?
Theory of change
A theory of change is a tool that shows a charity’s path from needs to activities to outcomes to impact. It describes the change you want to make and the steps involved in making that change happen. Theories of change also depict the assumptions that lie behind your reasoning, and where possible, these assumptions are backed up by evidence.
A good theory of change can reveal:
- whether you are doing the right activities to meet your goals;
- whether there are things you do that do not help you achieve your goals;
- which activities and outcomes you can achieve alone and which you cannot achieve alone; and
- how to measure your impact.
A theory of change forces you to take a clear, simple view, crystallising your work into as few steps as possible to capture the key aspects of what you do.
This short paper introduces theory of change, explains the origins of the technique, and discusses how it can be used by charities to improve their work.
We show how a theory of change can be useful in three important ways. It is an excellent basis for a strategic plan because it works methodically from the need you are trying to address to the change you want to achieve. It provides a theoretical framework for measuring a charity’s impact. And it can also be used to think more broadly about how different organisations within a sector are working together, and how they could achieve greater impact through collaboration.
The theory of change process has transformed the way we plan and measure our impact.