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Uses of theory of change

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Theory of change (ToC) is a flexible methodology with a wide range of uses to underpin planning and evaluation throughout an organisation. This page looks at some of those uses in more detail.

ToC for evaluation

Theory of change is immensely useful as a way of guiding and focusing our evaluations. Once you have a ToC, or something like one, you know what to collect data on, and have some stakeholder agreement built around that. This is more than just identifying outcomes; ToC can illustrate how to track not just whether you have achieved outcomes but how, why and with whom.

In using ToC for evaluation, we often develop what we call a ‘descriptive theory’ – one that describes what an organisation thinks they do, so that can be tested. This is in contrast to the ‘creative theories’ we develop for strategic planning (see below).

Managing complexity

ToC was developed to deal with complexity but, in a perhaps predictable irony, many theories have ended up being too complex themselves. Over the years we’ve learned that often we do not need a highly complex ToC to do good evaluation. Very complex theories have multiple outcomes and multiple causal links, not to mention the multiple assumptions behind all those links. Even in a large-scale programme evaluation, testing hundreds of outcomes or causal links is too costly, and clients struggle to use that level of detailed data. What we need for evaluation is a relatively simple ToC.

Complexity can be brought into the underlying evaluation framework, where needed. Complex theories can also be represented by a simple high-level theory (that can be widely shared) with more detailed underlying ‘nested’ theories used by project managers and evaluators. In some cases the detailed findings can be aggregated to give the bigger picture.

When working with a large national charity on impact evaluation, we developed a ToC and related narrative, which went down well with stakeholders. Despite the complexity of the intervention, our ToC is a one side of A3 map (although a more detailed version is available for evaluators to use). We also created a relatively short narrative to accompany it. Within this narrative we were able to explain all the core activities, outcomes for multiple stakeholders and final impact, as well as describe the causal links underlying them, and most of the core assumptions. This is enough for us to develop a robust evaluation framework.

ToC for shared understanding

When dealing with complex programmes, theory of change can provide a way to summarise the complexity and bring clarity to it. This enables a wide range of stakeholders to come to a shared understanding.

It’s common for organisations to use ToC processes explicitly to address internal disagreements about organisational purpose. While some theory of change purists might be concerned about this, our clients find this massively helpful in terms of helping them reach some agreement about the story underpinning their work.

It’s worth noting that an important critique of theory of change is that it ignores underlying power differentials between the different groups involved in ToC development. We often help clients develop ToCs alongside their staff, trustees, other partner organisations and service users. We applaud this level of participation, but remain aware that some people within these groups have less power than others, and true consensus may not be achievable. This is an ongoing debate.

ToC for communications

ToC narratives are very useful for communicating with others about your work. We’ve seen clients use ToC narratives to explain to stakeholders – particularly funders – what they do. Others use them on their website to explain their impact story, for example the Hardman Trust.

At the Carers Trust Network Partners conference in 2019, the audience was asked to develop a ’10-minute ToC’: three short sentences that describe respectively their outputs, outcomes and impacts. One participant was inspired – her takeaway action was to use this model to preface all her funding bids, to help her explain simply and clearly the wide range of work her carer’s organisation is involved in.

ToC for planning new work

Increasingly we use ToC to help people plan interventions. By plotting out your theory you expose any weaknesses in your thinking.

Some weaknesses can be ameliorated, for example by getting other stakeholders involved in creating change, or undertaking additional activities to increase the likelihood of change taking place. Risks can also be closely monitored once you identify them. However other weaknesses may prove so critical you need to rethink your entire intervention plans. As Anderson puts it, ‘a theory of change helps avoid implementing a mistake’.

In contrast to using ToC to describe a project ready for evaluation, in this case we use a creative approach to building theory. By focusing on the change you want to see – rather than the activities – you open up the conversation. What is the best way to achieve that change? Who needs to be involved? Bingo: you’re thinking in a different way. 

ToC for strategy

We use ToC methods and thinking in some of our strategy work. For example, we have used ToC in our work with a large organisation, and for them the ToC is the guiding framework for what they want to see changed in the world – it’s their 10- or 20-year vision for high-level generational change. Under this they will develop their next five-year strategic plan, which fleshes out the details and makes it relevant to the current context; below this there may be operational or business plans.

In strategy work, we talk a lot about aligning your theory of change – as a long-term articulation of your work and its intended goals – with a detailed strategy rooted in your organisational resources, expertise, legitimacy and priorities within a specific time frame. In traditional strategy processes, the ToC is the answer to the ‘What’s your vision?’ question. We need to get past the often-woolly vision statement – and a ToC can provide the rigour to explore this in detail.

ToC to guide existing activities and decision-making

Theories of change can provide organisations with an anchor. When the world is changing so fast we need a longer-term view to root us, to stop us from responding in a knee-jerk way to the myriad of opportunities we may be presented with. When deciding on whether to undertake new projects, we can review the extent to which they will enhance the existing theory.

Of course, ToCs need regular review – as context and needs change, so should they. But high level outcomes and impacts are usually valid for a good few years.

When not to use ToC?

ToC has many uses, but it is not always appropriate, for example if:

  • you only need to identify a small number of simple outcomes to measure
  • you just need something quick and dirty and/or you do not have time for involving the right people
  • you have a very simple linear activity for which a simple outcome chain might be better
  • the work is so complex and interdependent that every box on the map leads to every other; then a logic model may be clearer
  • the project is so developmental the potential outcomes and/or activities are not yet known.

Further information

Page last edited May 24, 2019

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