A theory of change is a tool that shows a charity’s path from needs to activities to outcomes to impact. It describes the change you want to make and the steps involved in making that change happen. Theories of change also depict the assumptions that lie behind your reasoning, and where possible, these assumptions are backed up by evidence.
A good theory of change can reveal:
- whether you are doing the right activities to meet your goals;
- whether there are things you do that do not help you achieve your goals;
- which activities and outcomes you can achieve alone and which you cannot achieve alone; and
- how to measure your impact.
A theory of change forces you to take a clear, simple view, crystallising your work into as few steps as possible to capture the key aspects of what you do.
This short paper introduces theory of change, explains the origins of the technique, and discusses how it can be used by charities to improve their work.
We show how a theory of change can be useful in three important ways. It is an excellent basis for a strategic plan because it works methodically from the need you are trying to address to the change you want to achieve. It provides a theoretical framework for measuring a charity’s impact. And it can also be used to think more broadly about how different organisations within a sector are working together, and how they could achieve greater impact through collaboration.
We have since produced practical guidance to help charities think through the process of developing a theory of change.
The theory of change process has transformed the way we plan and measure our impact.
Katie Bliss, SolarAid
More guides on theory of change
A theory of change is a tool that allows you to describe the need you are trying to address, the changes you want to make (your outcomes), and what you plan to do (your activities). It can help you improve your strategy, measurement, communication and partnership working.
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.
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?