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What a theory of change can offer environmental organisations

By Liz Gadd 3 December 2020 4 minute read

What is the biggest challenge facing the sector right now? Responding to the impact of Covid-19 and a recession? Loss of funding and redundancies? The ongoing challenge of the Brexit process? Or are these issues, albeit awful, just bumps in the road compared to the existential threat of climate change and biodiversity loss? Arguably, the biggest immediate risk that we face as a sector is that we fail to maximise the opportunities of this crisis. In this moment of systemic change, we have to rethink and rebuild as a stronger, more impactful third sector.

These are tough times for communities and the charities supporting them, and climate change won’t make them any easier. One valuable tool in the box is your theory of change, which is a way to describe how your organisation or project aims to make an impact in the world. It is a multi-purpose tool, which helps you to articulate your mission, refine your strategy, and provide a roadmap for impact measurement. But why now, when juggling so many other pressures, should you consider developing or refining your theory of change?

How a theory of change can help

A theory of change approach has a lot to offer, especially in these challenging times. Whether you are addressing social issues, environmental issues, or both, a theory of change can help you to make impact driven choices that support both people and the planet. Here are three key reasons to consider developing or honing your theory of change:

  1. A theory of change can be your strategic anchor as you take a more adaptive approach to strategy in these times of change. It allows you to retain your strategic focus when responding to a rapidly changing external environment.
  2. A theory of change can help you to decide where to target limited resources and stretched capacity. It will help you to unpack the theory of how change happens, and to think through the stakeholders required for theory to become reality. You can better identify the ‘levers’ for change and target your best next steps.
  3. A theory of change can support us to collaborate. This is particularly important on the issue of climate change, which will affect all of our missions and will require all sectors and subsectors to play their part. Unpacking and sharing our theories of change with one another will increase our ability to collaborate at the intersections of social and environmental issues. For example, increasing green jobs can help address growing unemployment, and air pollution affects our health and well-being. More collaboration, coupled with a strong understanding of how change happens, will empower us to maximise our opportunities for a green recovery from Covid-19, whilst simultaneously addressing more immediate issues.

Theory of change in practice

Amy Rose, Director of Litigation, Compliance and MEL at ClientEarth, shared her experience of working with NPC to develop their theories of change at our annual conference. At NPC Ignites, she said that she, ‘highly recommends,’ undergoing a theory of change process as, ‘it really is invaluable for everyone.’ She described how this even included one of her reluctant colleagues who, as a corporate lawyer, had thought theory of change would be, ‘a bunch of navel gazing NGO mumbo jumbo.’ Yet in reality, ‘it opened up their thinking to exactly how change happened and to prioritise their work based on that.’

We have also recently been working with the team at On the EDGE Conservation, to further develop their theory of change. Diogo Verissimo, Director of Conservation Marketing, described the result of this process as, ‘quite exciting [knowing] that this is how we want the world to change.’

For those new to theory of change, our Theory of change in ten steps guidance is an excellent starting point, and we hope to share more learning in the future on the use of theory of change for environmental programmes and at the intersections of social and environmental issues.

When seeking inspiration and shared learning, you will find that, unfortunately, not many theories of change are currently published, especially for environmental organisations. As previously mentioned, transparency around our theories of change is critical to improving our effectiveness and efficiency as a sector. That said, there are examples of theories of change available online and significant learning from the wider social sector, which has embraced theory of change more fully than the environmental sector has.

Examples of theories of change include the theory of change for the Friends Provident Foundation’s Building Resilient Economies Programme, the Masonic Charitable Foundation’s theory of change, the London Funders’ theory of change, and the Social Switch project’s theory of change. Also in the environmental sector, although much more scarce, examples can be found, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development’s theory of change and Climate Outreach’s theory of change.

Finding the time for theory of change

Whilst theory of change is a valuable tool for both charities and funders, charities can struggle to find the capacity to develop their theory of change, especially in times like these, if they are not enabled to do so by their funders. Indeed, Amy Rose notes that one of the key enablers of their work on their theory of change has been having a supportive funder that is willing to invest in ClientEarth’s monitoring, evaluation and learning activity. In this moment of systemic change, we have to rethink and rebuild, and to do that we need theories of change that help us to make impact driven choices that support both people and the planet.

For more advice on how environmental organisations can develop their theory of change, Amy shared her top tips at our annual conference, which was recorded and is available to watch back. You can purchase access to this recording, and all of the other recordings from our annual conference, here. If you’d like to work with us on your theory of change or share one that you have already developed, please contact us at If you would like to support our theory of change for environmental programmes work, please get in touch on

A theory of change can help you to make impact driven choices that support both people and the planet. Here's why environmental organisations should develop their theory of change: Click To Tweet