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Identify the difference you want to make

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Planning tools help you articulate your intended outcomes (changes or benefits that happen as a result of your work) and impact (broad or longer-term effects of your work).

Once you understand the issue you want to address, a planning tool can help you plan new work to address it. Planning tools can also help you communicate the purpose of what you do to funders and donors, decide what information to collect to evaluate your programmes and services, and improve your existing interventions. 

Two of the most commonly used planning models are theory of change and the Planning Triangle.

Theory of change

A theory of change is a description of how and why a particular way of working will be effective, showing how change happens in the short, medium and long term to achieve the intended impact.

A theory of change can be developed at the beginning of a piece of work (to help you plan) or to describe an existing piece of work (so you can evaluate it). It is particularly helpful if you are planning or evaluating a complex initiative – although it can also be used for more straightforward projects.

Theory of change is a flexible methodology; you can design a development process to meet the needs of your organisation. Once developed, a theory can be represented in a visual diagram or as a narrative – but the thinking involved in the development process is often as important as what you produce at the end of it.

Theory of change is helpful for voluntary organisations because:

It’s accessible

Theory of change is a logical way to identify and describe how the work you do leads to change and uses language and ideas already familiar to many in the voluntary sector. This means it’s an accessible way to involve a range of stakeholders in planning. The theory of change development process is also a good fit with values that are important to many voluntary organisations – it’s participatory and values stakeholder expertise.

It makes evaluation stronger

A theory of change brings focus to evaluation. It provides a framework to evaluate against – you can analyse your progress against your theory and look at the extent to which your theory is accurate.

Developing a theory of change helps you focus on the changes you want to achieve, rather than just on the work you do. This puts you in a good position to focus your evaluation on the outcomes of your work – what changes have your programmes and services been able to bring about or contribute to?

Involving stakeholders in developing a theory (see more below) enables a discussion around what types of data should be collected to effectively test the theory. As a result, subsequent evaluation is more likely to be acceptable to stakeholders and to meet needs.

It promotes effective engagement with stakeholders

Developing a theory of change is a powerful way to promote collaboration and engagement with stakeholders. Involving multiple stakeholders leads to a stronger theory.

Theory of change can help generate consensus among stakeholders. When dealing with complex work, theory of change can provide a way to summarise complexity and bring clarity to it. This enables a wide range of stakeholders to reflect and come to a shared understanding about a programme – or even an organisation’s – purpose. It can also help to manage expectations about what can realistically be achieved with the resources that you have.

A completed theory diagram or narrative is an effective tool to communicate with stakeholders about your work, helping them understand what you do and why. For example, a theory can be helpful when communicating with funders about a project’s intended impact. It can show how relatively small scale or early stage outcomes contribute to a broader picture of social change.

It makes your work better

Developing a theory of change can improve your strategic planning, helping you make decisions about ways of working that are most likely to lead to change.

The process of developing a theory of change also brings to the surface assumptions about why and how certain outcomes can be achieved. This helps you to be clearer about what you need to put in place to achieve them. It may also suggest how you need to change ways of working.


A theory of change may not be an appropriate planning tool if you have only a small number of simple outcomes to measure, or you run a simple linear activity, or you need to produce a plan very quickly – you could try using the Planning Triangle (see below) instead.

Find out more about the uses of theory of changehow to develop a theory of change and take a look at an example.

The Planning Triangle

The Planning Triangle, developed by NCVO Charities Evaluation Services, is widely used for impact planning, and helps you communicate about your work clearly and succinctly. It sets out a series of simple, logical connections that help you, and other people, understand how you plan to make a difference through your work.

Developed before theory of change was widely used in the UK, the triangle has a simpler format which many organisations continue to find useful. It is best suited to organisations who want to plan and evaluate single projects or areas of work, or for organisations with less experience in impact planning.

planning triangle

Read about how to create a planning triangle and look at examples of planning triangles.

Page last edited Oct 12, 2020

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