Thinking big in your theory of change

Are you an organisation with a mission to tackle large and complex social issues? Many are tackling deep-rooted social problems—from homelessness to criminal justice, knife crime to childhood obesity. These issues involve lots of actors, they are caused by multiple factors, and they require ambitious action to address them.

Theory of change provides a framework for thinking through what change you want to see and how you plan to get there. This workshop is aimed at organisations wanting to think big in their theory of change: to influence lasting social change in a complex area. It will introduce systems approaches to understanding why complex social problems persist and draw on NPC’s Thinking Big guidance to support you to develop a theory of change aimed at systemic change.

What is a theory of change?

A theory of change describes what an organisation wants to achieve and how it plans to get there. Often presented as a diagram, it shows how an organisation’s desired outcomes are linked together in a series of steps to achieve its goal(s). A theory of change can be used to refine your strategy and improve your impact.

The process of developing a theory of change can provide a space for reflection, test your assumptions about how you work and challenge your role in tackling issues. A systems approach to theory of change can help you to identify key leverage points, understand connections and feedback loops, and set clearer parameters for where to focus your efforts.

What is systems change?

When an issue is described as ‘systemic’ it tends to mean that it is the product of complex and multi-layered factors. For example, the causes of re-offending for women with a drug addiction include: lack of meaningful employment opportunities; the way they are prepared for release by the criminal justice system; the attitude of the courts; wider policy on criminalisation of drugs; social stigma; and the behaviour of the individual. This is not an exhaustive list but illustrates the complexity of the ‘system’ that surrounds a social problem.

Organisations that set out to address these systemic problems tend to think of their work as ‘systems change’ or describe themselves as taking a ‘systems approach’. In simple terms they are working towards lasting social change.

Aims of the workshop

The workshop will help you to:

  • Learn about the theory of change model: what it is, where it comes from, and how it can be used to benefit your organisation.
  • Understand how theory of change can complement a systems approach: how it can be used alongside systems mapping and systems thinking methodologies.
  • Create suitable goals: achieving a balance between ambition and realism; setting goals that reflect your contribution to wider systems change.
  • Make a start on your own theory of change: identifying the end goal and applying backwards mapping to your organisation (or a programme) to identify and prioritise outcomes.
  • Explore how to use theory of change to learn and adapt: challenging our initial assumptions; setting up a framework for ongoing reflection about whether activities are working as planned and how they can be improved.


This workshop is aimed at organisations and people with a social mission who want to tackle large and complex social issues and are seeking to understand how they can use theory of change in their work. The workshop does not require pre-existing knowledge of theory of change or systems change methodologies.

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