Most of the organisations we work with were founded on an individual or collective vision to leave the world in a better place than when they found it. They exist to create change.
That change can range in scale, from impacting individuals locally, interventions affecting wider society, to influencing global policy.
Whatever the scale, change rarely comes easily. As our clients demonstrate time and again, creating real change requires an, often complex, combination of activities and detailed work, delivered over long periods of time.
This can be challenging to explain, evidence and share in a way that everyone – from staff to funders, clearly understands.
A Theory of Change is a good solution to this challenge. It’s a powerful tool for organisations to describe how their work creates the change they want to see in the world, whilst focussing an organisation’s activities to achieve their long-term goals.
What is a Theory of Change?
Simply put, a Theory of Change shows how an organisation makes a difference through the work it does and why.
It does this by setting out an organisation’s long-term goals and linking together the activities, conditions and outcomes required to achieve them over the short, medium and long-term. It’s not a strategy but it helps to articulate how and why a strategy works.
It gives definition to the early and intermediate changes that need to happen for longer term change to happen, and the evidence to demonstrate that change. It’s a little different to evaluation on its own, in that it helps to define and prioritise the work an organisation does, as well as building the framework to test and describe its impact.
It’s usually presented as a diagram – easy to understand and quick to read, but it can also take the form of a narrative, or a combination of the two.
How is it used?
The flexibility of the model is one of its biggest selling points (in our opinion), and can be used:
To describe the big picture – the mission and vision of an organisation. Setting out how it believes the work it does results in a specific change and why
As a technical tool. To guide strategic decisions on programming, to test assumptions, gather evidence and take on board different ideas and perspectives. It can be used for individual projects as well as organisationally, shaping evaluations and informing how reporting should be done, to meet the requirements of funders
On a macro level, to examine a systemic problem an organisation wants to address and to map their intervention(s) onto that picture, helping to contextualise their work and define their unique role in a sector
It’s common for organisations to develop and use several theories of change, particularly if they run more than one programme or have a set of goals rather than one main aim.
Importantly, a Theory of Change isn’t a catch-all. Ideally, it should be developed and used in tandem with other strategic tools including Strategic Plans, Fundraising Strategies, Evaluation Frameworks and Sector Maps (all things Amplify can support you with).
How do organisations apply Theory of Change?
One of the most common questions we get is how to apply Theory of Change models to real-world planning and organisational activity. The following is a quick overview of how we support people to embed Theory of Change into their working practices:
Strategy: A Theory of Change is a really useful tool to frame strategic planning. It’s an excellent way to focus everyone on the core purpose and remit of the organisation and what needs to happen to achieve that, freeing teams (temporarily at least) from getting stuck on the specifics of programme and project delivery.
Creating shared understanding and purpose: Organisations can get into trouble when core staff, leaders and stakeholders hold different ideas about how an organisation makes change, or when a common understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve is missing. The process of developing a Theory of Change creates space and a structure for dialogue and discussion, getting everyone on the same page and working towards the same shared goals.
Fundraising: We cannot overstate the value of a Theory of Change to your fundraising strategy and development! Being able to clearly articulate what your organisation does, how it does it and how it evidences it is the golden egg of your Case for Support, and virtually every funding relationship you hold (or hope to hold) will benefit from well-developed theories of change at an organisational and project level.
Sector Mapping: Understanding how and where an organisation fits into a bigger system of creating change is critical to defining its place in a sector. It can help to define its unique role; identify others in the same or similar space who could become collaborators (rather than competitors); and it can shine a light on the key issues an organisation is well-placed to advocate for and influence others to act on.
Evaluation and Impact: This is one of the most common purposes for a Theory of Change, filling in the gaps between the long-term change an organisation is aiming to achieve and the iterative progress that happens as a result of individual projects and activities. It provides the building blocks to equip people with key, measurable indicators that evidence their work, and the data they need to demonstrate it. It also helps to capture where things aren’t going quite as expected in a way that’s reflective and constructive.
Want to know more?
A lot of organisations we work with struggle to know where to start with developing and embedding a Theory of Change. We know that capacity to learn the skills, facilitate teams and apply new models is challenging when your priority is delivering work on the ground.
That’s where we can help. With 30+ years of collective experience in the design, application and management of theories of change in a huge range of organisations, Amplify has the skills and understanding to guide you through the development and implementation of a Theory of Change at organisational level, to aid programme design, inform funding strategy and individual bids and to maximise your evaluation and impact.
Get in touch with us at email@example.com for a free initial consultation on how we might be able to help you.
In the meantime, you might find the resources below helpful – happy planning!
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations – great resource with easy to understand examples and further links (best suited for social change/charities)
Centre for Theory of Change – this is where it all began – the originators of the theory and the backstory of how it came about (this can read a bit academically)
United Nations Development Group – very comprehensive resource on how Theory of Change is used at a systemic level