What is a Theory of Change?

In the nonprofit and charitable sector organizations exist for the explicit purpose of changing some aspect of their communities. There are usually many possible ways to create the desired change, so organizations have to choose how to use their limited staff and budgets to get the most “bang for their buck.” The most successful organizations usually have an underlying framework that they use to guide those decisions, rather than just making it up as they go along. One tool that we use to create such a framework is called a theory of change.

What is This and Why Should I Care?

The Ford Foundation, one of the largest and most respected charitable foundations in the U.S. defines a theory of change as:

“[A tool that] describes a process of planned social change, from the assumptions that guide its design to the long-term goals it seeks to achieve.”

This definition really only applies to nonprofit organizations who are trying to advance their missions. However, I think that the idea of Theory of Change has a lot of relevance in many situations all the way from individual personal improvement up to and including inter-governmental groups such as the United Nations. In my view, tweaking the definition to:

“A tool that describes any process of planned change, from the assumptions that guide its design to the to the long-term goals it seeks to achieve.”

In my slightly tweaked definition, a theory of change can incorporate core values, a change management plan, a behavior modification plan, or any other type of improvement.

How is This Different From an Action Plan?

On the surface, a theory of change looks like just another plan of action that we might use to: try to quit smoking, find greater efficiencies in our departments, or lobby for a new law. When it’s done right, though, a theory of change includes many elements not found in a traditional plan of action such as:

  • Core values. In other words, why do you want to create that particular change.
  • Plan of action. What steps are you going to take.
  • Assumptions. Why do you think the steps in your plan of action will work?
  • Desired outcome(s). What do you want to happen when you complete this process?
  • Measures of success. How will you know when you are done?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll walk you through the process of creating a theory of change. In the meantime, if you want to read up on this concept, I recommend Grantcraft’s Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation.


photo by: Julia Folsom

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