Four tips to write a good Theory of Change

By Margery Infield 11 December 2019

Everybody trying to improve the world needs a Theory of Change (ToC), a plan for how they’re going to do it. A ToC brings direction and clarity to your work and helps organisations be more effective. But, with the stakes that high and so much complexity in the issues they’re tackling sometimes organisations can find developing one overwhelming.

Our recent Clothworkers’ Company seminar aimed to demystify Theories of Change and provide practical advice for development. NPC’s James Noble shared our updated guidance on Theory of Change, and we heard from two charities, the Premier League Charitable Fund and Masonic Charitable Foundation about their experience of developing one – the successes, pitfalls, and ultimate benefits of the process.

It’s not all about a complicated diagram

When people first come across theory of change, it’s often through a big diagram, which attempts to capture the whole plan.

These can be intimidating but according to NPC’s James Noble, who authored our updated ToC guidance, it’s important not to become fixated on these end results. He stresses that the process of thinking about your ToC itself is valuable: the consultation, research, reflection and challenge which comes through our 10 steps often provide organisations with new insight, regardless of whether this is codified into a ToC diagram.

Where organisations do get to the point of codifying their ToC into a diagram, it’s important to simplify it as much as possible. The goal of an organisational ToC is to clearly articulate how a charity’s activities achieve its vision and mission. Complex multi-page diagrams do not do this. James challenged the charities in the room to articulate their organisational ToC with 20 boxes on a page. His advice? ‘Start by examining one target group at a time, and really consider how people using your services experience them.’

Be prepared for challenge

John McCrohan, Head of Strategy at Masonic Charitable Foundation, explained that a robust Theory of Change process must involve challenging the perceived wisdom within an organisation, and considering ‘why do we exist?’ rather than simply ‘what do we do?’. It can be hard to arrive at the conclusion that not everything you currently do is valuable—but this insight helps you refocus on work that is more valuable in the longer term.

Similarly, Alex White and Gail Scott-Spicer from PLCF explained that its ToC work showed PLCF was doing too much and spreading itself too thinly. Whilst taking a new approach has felt uncomfortable at times, the new ToC has provided clarity on how to improve impact measurement, and enabled the team to increase its understanding of what works and why.

Engage trustees

Given that ToC development can challenge an organisation’s existing activities, it’s vital that the whole board are bought in to the process. Gail, a trustee of the Premier League Charitable Fund, emphasised the benefits to her board of having a completed Theory of Change: it gives trustees real clarity over the organisation’s goals, and so helps them hold the Executive to account. The Good Governance Code can be a useful resource when having these conversations.

All our speakers considered it wise to have a named trustee leading on ToC. ‘There is a risk of disconnection between the trustees and the executive – so it’s important to manage this closely.’

Take your time

Developing a new Theory of Change can take a lot of time and energy. Both PLCF and MCF encouraged organisations embarking on the process not to rush, to be realistic, and to seek help if they got stuck. But despite these warnings, the message in the room was clear: ToC is a vital tool in helping you identify how you can achieve maximum impact. It keeps an organisation true to its vision and mission – and is worth the time investment.

The information in this blog is derived from a recent NPC event. If you would like to hear about future events sign up to our newsletter or keep an eye on our twitter and events page