Theory of change: The basics

As anyone familiar with NPC will know, we are pretty keen on the theory of change approach.

A theory of change describes what impact a charity or service is aiming for and how it plans to get there. We like it because it encourages people to collaborate and to be more rigorous in their thinking. It’s also the first step towards better evaluation; because until you have properly described what something is aiming to do you can’t determine its success.

An interesting thing about working on lots of theories of change is that it they don’t seem to get any easier to do. Part of this is because charities tackle complex social and environmental problems, so a theory of change can’t be a simple tick box exercise.

We have also learned that it helps to appreciate the level of the theory of change you are working on. For small scale projects you can probably be quite specific about aims and objectives, but if you’re working on a theory of change for a whole organisation it will need to be broader and more generic.

At NPC, we’ve recently gone a step further and tried to do theories of change for whole sectors. So rather than agreeing goals and approaches for a single programme or set of programmes, we do so for all organisations working in the same field.

Applying theory of change at a sector level

So far we have worked on the rather diverse challenges of ‘cultural film exhibition’ for the Film Audience Network, and education in prisons for the Prisoners’ Education Trust (which was published on Friday).

What we have found is that it is fairly easy to define outcomes for whole sectors; in the case of prison education it is reduced reoffending. The harder part is unpicking the various ways in which a wide range of programmes are supposed to work in terms of achieving this outcome.

Our approach was to look across our various discussions and pick out all the common hypotheses put forward about what prisoners education can achieve for people. For example; that education gives people skills for the workplace so they can get a job rather than reoffend; or that the education process can introduce people to new possibilities that change their outlook on life. In total we found 28 of these distinct hypothesis as to why prison education ‘works’, which are all described in the report. Which leads an the obvious question…

How might this approach be useful?

This being new, we are not sure yet what sector level theories of change could achieve. But we see some potential:

  • Helping organisations within sectors to advocate for their work more coherently and consistently. This is particularly relevant in prison education, which has just been the subject of a Government Review.
  • Encouraging us to think harder about how to deliver good services. The ideal project will be one that is effective at sparking the hypotheses in the theory of change for individual service users. And by recognising this, we can learn about how to make this happen in different contexts.
  • Providing a framework for organising the existing evidence base and identifying areas where evidence is currently stronger or weaker. In suggesting this, I’m mindful that we have not yet had much academic input into either of our sector theories of change. We’d welcome this as a way to make them more robust.
  • Helping organisations and practitioners working within a sector develop their own theories of change and evaluations of more specific programmes. It may also help with collaboration between organisations, including funders.
  • Adding to existing ‘shared measurement’ initiatives that have so far only focused on outcomes measurement rather than looking at what actually causes change.

If you are working in a sector that you think might benefit from this approach then do get in touch.

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