What the Heck is a Theory of Change?

Most organizations I have worked with never bothered to develop a formal theory of change for their work, but every group has had one — even if it’s unstated and informal. When you start a nonprofit organization, it’s worth your time to spell this out explicitly. Doing so is not that difficult, and it helps out in so many ways.

What the heck is a theory of change anyway?

A basic theory of change is just a list of simple statements showing a cause and effect relationship between the work you do and the outcomes you want. If we do X then Y will follow causing Z to happen. This is usually stated briefly and accompanied by a graphic that illustrates the point and a brief list of the assumptions you have made along the way.

There is a lot of information on this elsewhere on the internet, including several videos on YouTube (like this one), and these are worth reviewing, but it might be easiest to start with a simple example.

Let’s say you’re working on nutrition for low income students in a school. Start by asking why you are doing this. You might say “because this helps students concentrate on their school work”. Why is this important? Because it will improve their graduation rate leading to better employment opportunities. Why is that important? Drill down and explore through contemplation and discussion. After some thought, you can produce a theory statement something like this:

“If we provide nutritious meals for low income elementary school students, this allows them to concentrate on their school work, leading first to better grades, then a higher graduation rate, followed by better employment opportunities, and eventually this will contribute to their rising out of poverty.”

It’s helpful to chart this out like:

  • Provide nutritious meals to students ->
  • Students improve focus on schoolwork ->
  • Higher grades ->
  • Higher graduation rate ->
  • Better employment opportunities for graduates ->
  • Rise out of poverty

That was just off the top of my head so pardon any naivete. In a real situation, several people would participate in developing this document. As a founder, you may be developing this on your own early on, but as you bring new people into your group you will want to get their input,  use that input to enrich and improve upon your own ideas, and develop a better understanding of the way in which you intend to work together to improve the world. Steps you haven’t thought of could get added, and the model will improve. (We’ll use my simple sketch for illustrative purposes, however.)

Each step on this chart implies a couple of things. First, there’s usually a way to assess the data at each point. The students’ grades and graduation rates jump out as obvious data points. Second, there are assumptions you are making, like the health of the student is improved by nutritious meals and that improved health will affect the students’ study habits. These can all be summarized in a table.

Step Measuring Tool Assumptions
We provide nutritious meals to students Nutritionist evaluates meals Improved health through nutrition will lead to better schoolwork habits
Students improve focus on schoolwork Teacher observations of students Schoolwork habits are a primary cause of low grades
Students’ grades improve Students’ report cards Higher grades will lead to an improved graduation rate
Students’ graduation rate increases School’s graduation rate report to school board Graduates will have better job opportunities
Graduates’ job opportunities improve Unemployment rate and entry wages Better jobs will reduce poverty
Graduates earn more real income Income adjusted for inflation

What do you do with this theory of change document?

There are several upsides to having this formally spelled out.

  • In the beginning, you can check your mission statement (or statement of purpose) against your theory of change. The two should not contradicts each other.
  • You can use the measuring tools to evaluate how well your work is going. This can reveal false assumptions which usually means that one of your assumptions is wrong. This would point to ways for improving your work (and adjusting the theory of change).
  • This document can be used to spell out to others how your work will benefit society. This can be invaluable in attracting co-founder, board members, volunteers, and contributors.

Some of your assumptions may be untestable, but you still list them out. If this is the case, you are looking for supporters that share these assumptions. (Think about religious organizations that are trying to do good, or organizations that focus on more abstract outcomes like “building character”.)

And always remember Seymour’s first rule of theories:

“The difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference, but in practice there is.”

That is, this is just a document that gives your work some focus and direction. Your actual work will enlighten you as you perform it. This real world experience should help you improve this useful tool as you go.

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