Thinking big: How to use theory of change for systems change

Systems change is helping a range of charities, funders and practitioners to deal with the root causes of social problems.

The approach requires us not only to understand why difficult social problems persist but also to challenge our own role tackling them—a formidable task.

But if all of us in the voluntary sector are to become effective agents of change, we need to get better at challenging ourselves.

We think that, applied well, theory of change can support charities and funders that want 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.

Common pitfalls of using theory of change, and rules of thumb for taking a systemic approach: pitfall 1) neglect context. rule of thumb 1) understand context. pitfall 2) change others only. rule of thumb 2) know yourself. pitfall 3) think in linear terms. rule of thumb 3) think systemically. pitfall 4) seek safety in certainty. rule of thumb 4) learn and adapt. pitfall 5) change is technical. rule of thumb 5) recognise change is personal.

Traditional approaches to theory of change can be difficult to apply to campaigning, this NPC guide sets out how to develop a theory of change for campaigning.


Let us know your thoughts on the report on Twitter @NPCthinks and @LankellyChase using #SystemsChange, or drop us a line at

We offer theory of change training for charities and funders throughout the year. Find out more on the events page.

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