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How to do a basic theory of change

By James Noble 9 October 2019

Theory of change is a way for charitable organisations to think about and describe what they aim to achieve and how they hope to achieve it.

NPC has been using and promoting it for nearly 10 years because it fits with our belief that charities will achieve greater impact if they; take time to consider how they can make the most difference; set goals and objectives; and test themselves against evidence.

But while theory of change is a simple notion—’just describe what you aim to do’—the problems charities tackle are complex and theories of change can become complex in-turn. We see people start with the right intentions but then get bogged down or confused. Not all theory of change processes produce good results.

Our new guide aims to prevent this by offering a step-by-step process that should ensure you can produce a basic theory of change and get most of the benefits out of the approach.

We have referred to it as ‘basic’ because we think it works best for charitable services and smaller organisations. Larger programmes and campaigns tend to bring greater complications like more stakeholders, longer time frames or more activities, and these demand a different kind of thinking and greater experience to do well. But most people doing theories of change in the charity sector don’t need to worry about this and can stick to this more basic approach. Having said this, those working on larger programmes might still find the guide useful in the way it describes the central concepts, and we plan to publish further guidance for the more complicated situations.

There are ten steps in all, mostly consisting of questions or prompts to help you focus on the right issues in the right order, and the steps are divided into three broad stages:

  1. 1. Situation Analysis – Reflection on the causes of the problem you want to tackle, barriers for change and where your organisation can best contribute alongside others.
  2. 2. Theory of change – Focussing on what you hope to achieve and how, using clear definitions and sequences.
  3. 3. Assumptions – Identifying weaknesses, risks and how context might affect your theory of change – to reveal your underlying thinking.

This overall structure is designed to help you manage complexity. You are encouraged to consider big, soul-searching, questions at stages (1) and (3), but when working on the theory of change itself, stage (2), you can put these aside and concentrate on your plans.

Although we refer to it as ‘basic’ it’s also comprehensive – it poses all the relevant questions. Depending on your circumstances you might chose to prioritise some steps more than others, but we think it’s helpful to see what they all entail. Similarly, we encourage you to put as much time and effort into the process as you can. Ideally you will consult beneficiaries and staff, and look at the evidence base around your work. But we know this will depend on your circumstances and goals for the exercise.

In the theory of change stage (2) we stick to our earlier guidance and encourage you to work ‘backwards’ from intended impact, through shorter-term outcomes to activities. But there are two further aspects that we have bought to the fore:

  • Being clear about target groups from the start – i.e. who you want to reach and support the most. And the suggestion that you consider target groups one at a time, to avoid unnecessary confusion.
  • Introducing the concept of ‘mechanisms’ to help you think more about the link between activities and outcomes, and the nature of the relationship you aim to have with beneficiaries.

A lot of people associate theory of change with a theory of change diagram, but we have found the diagram is  something that people can struggle with. So, although we have included it at step 8, we are keen to emphasise that it is best seen as a ‘summary’ or ‘representation’ of the theory of change process rather than its main purpose. We also think it will help to appreciate that—while producing a diagram does help you to think things through and be succinct—it is still perfectly possible to do a good theory of change without one.

The ten step process is the summation of many years work and experience of using theories of change in the charity sector. But it’s also an evolution of our earlier guidance and we are keen to know what people think. You can email me with comments or complete a short ( two question) feedback form here.


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