This practical guide draws on our work with clients and partners over several years to help organisations of all shapes and sizes think through the theory of change process from beginning to end.
How to create a theory of change
In our experience, it is nearly always better to engage a range of people when developing a theory of change. The process itself begins by identifying the group you are working with, setting out their needs and characteristics, and clarifying the final goal that you want to achieve. Once you have defined your final goal(s) you need to work backwards through the steps or intermediate outcomes needed to achieve it. You then need to consider how your activities will make this change happen. Throughout this process you need to think about enablers—conditions or factors that need to be in place for the project to work—and consider what evidence already exists that is relevant to your theory of change.
How to represent a theory of change
A diagrammatic representation of a programme or organisation is the centrepiece of most theories of change. This section includes a description of four ways to approach this (illustrated by examples): The CES Planning Triangle; logic model; outcomes chain; and written narrative.
How to use your theory of change
A measurement framework built around your theory of change will ensure you collect information that tells you what difference you are making. Designing this framework will involve deciding what data to collect, the level of rigour of evidence you need, and how to go about collecting this data. Our method for building measurement frameworks is set out in detail in NPC’s four pillar approach.
Creating a theory of change will also put you in a position to learn from your results to improve your services and help the sector you work in to become more effective.
More guides on theory of change
Growing numbers of charities are using theory of change as a strategy and evaluation tool. This popularity is partly a symptom of funders asking charities to provide a theory of change in their application or evaluation. But can the approach also be useful for funders themselves; and how does the tool differ in this setting?
We think that, applied well, theory of change can support charities and funders to take a systemic approach to their work. This report identifies five common pitfalls that organisations fall into when using theory of change, and walks through five rules of thumb that will help organisations to use the approach to tackle complex problems.
A decade ago, the term ‘theory of change’ meant little to the UK charity sector. Seen as a piece of American evaluation jargon, it did not conjure up much enthusiasm. But today, more and more charities are using theories of change, and more and more funders are asking to see them. So what is a theory of change, and why is it so valuable?