A pile of question marks

Using a Theory of Change: from insights to ideas

By Kathryn Dingle 21 May 2021

You might have seen from my previous blog post that NPC has been speaking to organisations about the opportunities and challenges of using of the Theory of Change and data to support learning.  We are now keen to share where we are taking these insights.

The challenge

We are interested in exploring the question, what if there was a digital product and/or community to help people use a Theory of Change to learn and adapt throughout their organisations.

The process of creating a theory of change is seen as valuable for individuals/organisations. Many benefit from a clearer internal and external narrative about their work, more integrated services and more outcomes focused evaluation. However, for some there is a disconnect between the theory of change and their day-to-day work. There is a sense that a theory of change is inflexible and does not fit to their day-to-day work.

There are many factors that contribute to this, such as inaccessible language, a lack of clear understanding of theory of change or its value across the organisation and a uncertainty surrounding how the theory of change fits with day-to-day work or wider organisational strategy.

Areas of focus

From this, we created a list of How might we questions to help stimulate ideas for potential solutions and did an open call vote to help us focus our attention.

We ran an internal idea generation session. The team was asked to rapidly note down ideas (as wild as they like,) before discussing and linking each others ideas together. Here are a few of our ideas

Our ideas

How might we make a theory of change more accessible, so that it is more easily understood and usable across an organisation?

  • A theory of change translator. The terms within a theory of change explain in simple terms for different audiences. e.g. outcomes like increased confidence, and how you would speak to children to measure this.
  • Training guidance. Videos and guidance on theory of change for fundraising, for comms etc.
  • Theory of change to knowledge board converter. Categorising the theory of change to focus on what we know, what we think we know and what we don’t know.
  • Accessible diagrams. Theory of change diagram software that is compatible with screen readers and tabbing etc.
  • Greyed out theory of change for different audiences. The diagram highlights the different areas of the theory of change that relate to each team/job function, so they can see how they fit into it.
  • Theory of change to strategy converter. A template based on shared measurement and place-based work.
  • Different versions of the theory of change diagram. Different versions for different audiences.

How might we create a tool to easily connect data to a theory of change, so that it is useful for organisations to learn what works and doesn’t work?

  • Internal data connector. A tool to add internal data and monitoring progress (quotes, numbers, etc). It connect to your theory of change, you can set criteria and measure your progress against this.
  • Behind the lines. Showing the evidence behind the arrows (not just the boxes). e.g why A leads to B.
  • Data source recommender. Theory of change put in and recommendations based on the outcomes and mechanisms. Suggestions based on known datasets that might be useful.
  • Open data API. API for publicly available information (local, national data) that can be plugged into an interactive theory of change.
  • Interactive dashboard. With colour coding and live data.
  • Interactive diagrams. Embed tables, charts, flowcharts, arrows, boxes of different colours, shapes, design etc. to display more information within the theory of change.
  • Shapes. Different shapes to represent different types of data and different parts of the theory of change.

How might we help organisations to decide where to go with their theory of change once they have it?

  • Theory of change to action plan converter. Put the theory of change in, it converts to a knowledge board, followed by an action plan.
  • Strategy AI. Automated recommendations. Put the theory of change into it and it gives suggestions on what to do for your strategy.
  • Theory of change to research strategy converter. A template based on the confidence in the connections, which you then convert into a prioritised strategy.
  • Research questions identifier. Help to identify research questions that inform or strengthen the evidence base for the theory of change.

What’s next?

We are currently exploring these ideas further and scoping out which ideas to prototype. We plan to create low-fi, hacky prototypes to test our assumptions that the solution is useful and usable. Once we have a clear idea of whether this is something that staff/volunteers of charities will use, we will build, iterate and launch an official product.

We will be sharing the insights, prototypes and opportunities to user test it as we go, so watch this space! In the meantime, we would love to hear your comments, suggestions or ideas for tackling the three how might we questions.