“Theory of Change” (ToC) has certainly become a popular word in the social development sector among funders, nonprofits, government departments, and others. The programme theory is used by those who are increasingly wanting and needing a ToC as an integral part of their programming and interventions for beneficiaries.
As experts in evaluation, we at Development Works Changemakers are often requested by our clients to either assess the rigour of an existing ToC or develop one from scratch. Assessing an existing ToC helps to ensure that a programme is designed to reasonably achieve its intended results (done within the context of a design evaluation).
Underlying principles of a ToC
Essentially, the ToC should be a road map, or visual representation of what your programme does, what it is supposed to achieve and suggest how to achieve this. The ToC will assess the activities you are running, your intervention and what results you want to get out of it.
The purpose is to get all key stakeholders of a programme to understand what the programme does – especially if it’s a complicated programme and there are many stakeholders.
A ToC is a helpful exercise. It’s the “design” of the programme. It asks important questions such as – is the programme designed to achieve its intended results?
By mapping out the programme, you are able to identify what activities you do and the type of people you reach. You are then able to scrutinize the programme and see if it’s plausible and that the activities will lead to the desired outcomes.
A ToC is testable. One of the benefits of this aspect is that you can develop indicators which serve as measurements of how your project is doing. It allows a group to assess what the end goal looks like on paper, whether the programme is testable and introduces an element of accountability to funders, stakeholders and beneficiaries.
In addition, a ToC is not a rigid document. Instead, it is a working document that is flexible and should constantly be referred to as you navigate through the programme. This allows the organization to reconsider important assumptions as the programme advances.
When is a TOC developed?
A ToC is helpful in terms of accountability for both funders and stakeholders. It fills in the missing steps about the reasonability of a programme and how it achieves its goals. Breaking down a programme step-by-step helps make sense of the programme to all involved. This also helps with funding.
A ToC is also useful in rechecking assumptions. When things are going wrong, you can go back and look at what is missing or needs to be tweaked in the programme design. It’s helpful in knowing all of your outcomes (long, medium and short term). This helps to identify achievements in short term goals on the way to the long term goals.
Developing a new ToC is often done for clients who have been running programmes for years but do not have a clearly articulated ToC. Other clients request a ToC when on the cusp of launching new programmes.
If a ToC is developed early in a programme’s lifespan (i.e. at the design or pilot stage), it allows one to identify potential risks and curveballs early on, and either put actions in place to mitigate these, or even change the plan to ensure that these barriers are not faced.
How are TOCs Received?
There is a mixed reception of ToCs in the industry. Those who have it, understand it and see the value with regards to tracking progress and having a single goal. The value lies in making sure that the activities reach particular milestones along the way.
On the other side of the coin, it can be daunting for those who are unfamiliar with the theory. There are so many different words for ToC and it has been adopted and represented differently among various organizations.
Ultimately, it depends largely on the capacity of the organization to develop one and how they need to communicate with their stakeholders (marketing vs. strategic purposes).
The jargon and different wording for a ToC can be confusing for clients and sometimes even evaluators themselves. This is largely because ToC is used interchangeably with, or represented as, a programme theory, log frame, logical framework, logic model, results chain, impact theory and even more!
Adding to the confusion is that there is no single right way to develop or articulate a ToC. If one simply googles the term “theory of change” you will be faced with an array of graphic representations as presented below.
This confusion can also make people look at it with scepticism. Some get nervous about it being a form of testing their work and their services because there’s something a little bit more systematic in place (which can cause resistance).
Overall, practitioners, implementers and stakeholders are increasingly seeing the value in it and coming on board with using and creating ToC.
Deciding on the format
The format depends largely on the unique needs and requirements of the organisation or their funders, but is also very much dependent on the evaluator/individual developing the ToC and what practices they studied or typically employ.
For example, a ToC and ToA do go hand-in-hand. Essentially, a ToA is how you operationalize your ToC. This is one practice that could be followed.
ToC refers to the broader theory which is framed with “if-then” statements when talking about the underlying theory which feeds into your ToA.
All look very different from box and arrow diagrams, to infographics and tabular formats.
Different TOC representations
Let’s look at some of the common ways organisations represent their ToC.
Below is a tabular format known as the “log frame” or “logical framework”. You’ll see here that the process flows from the bottom to the top, showing;
- The activities that are undertaken;
- What the immediate outputs or deliverables are;
- The expected change (i.e. improvement in knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or behaviours) and finally;
- The ultimate goal the programme is contributing to.
This approach offers the benefits of including the indicators (i.e. the way that one will measure whether activities took place or outputs and outcomes were achieved) and means of verification (i.e. the sources one will use to measure the indicators).
A drawback is that this format is very structured and restrictive. It assumes that change happens in a linear fashion which is not always the case. Sometimes there are feedback loops. It also only shows one overarching outcome, while there may be various shorter-term, medium-term and longer-term outcomes that have to occur for goals to be reached.
Image credit: The Guardian
Another format is the “logic model”, which is often used commonly among nonprofits.
It’s important to note that the process has a more natural flow, but is still tabular. This makes the model useful for developing indicators separately.
Image credit: Student Affairs Assessment
Below is a more flexible logic model which is favoured by Development Works Changemakers when developing ToCs for clients. It shows the important inputs, activities, outputs and various outcomes and impacts. The main benefit is that change is not necessarily linear which is demonstrated in this model. The box and arrow diagrams show interrelationships, feedback loops, how one activity will lead to maybe only one outcome rather than all, how one outcome must be achieved over another, etc.
One addition that Development Works Changemakers makes is adding the assumptions of the programme throughout the diagram. These are both assumptions that support the programme achieving its intent (enablers) and those that prevent this (barriers).
Assumptions are extremely important to consider as well as may have a significant impact on the design. For example, an important assumption of offering an afterschool programme is that;
- Learners are provided with transport home after school hours;
- It is safe to be on school property afterschool hours, etc.
Such assumptions that do not hold, can often explain why a programme may not be working or achieving its outputs or outcomes.
Image credit: ICAI
Here is another example of a simple ToC and an effective way of presenting the results chain:
Image credit: Better Evaluation
Points to consider with TOC
Constructing a ToC mostly depends on how the organization uses a ToC and if they use it at all. Certain formats assume that a programme follows a linear pathway, which isn’t always the case especially for more complex programmes or interlinking programmes. But sometimes outcomes can be complex and require feedback loops, etc.
It’s therefore important to construct your ToC in a non-restrictive manner. You need to understand the complexities of what you are trying to achieve.
Another important factor is how the sector accepts the ToC. It should be used as a learning tool and a way to constantly improve your programme and meet your objectives and outcomes.
The main purpose of a ToC is to put everyone on the same page by mapping out the design in a sensible and reasonable way. All stakeholders and funders can better understand goals; it helps with developing indicators and ensuring accountability; and should be used as a working document for programme improvement.
Written by Jenna Joffe