Hope Has No Place in a Theory of Change

In a previous post, I briefly explained How to Create a Theory of Change. You can read in more detail on that post, but the three main steps are:

  1. Desired Change Assumptions
  2. Actions
  3. Results & Reflection

Recently, Matt Forti wrote Six Pitfalls To Avoid in Developing Your Theory of Change, in which he describes some issues he has run across in his word. One point he makes resonated especially well for me:

Confusing accountability with hope. A theory of change must clarify what results a nonprofit will hold itself accountable for achieving; in other words, what results must it deliver to be successful. Defining results in this way will force your organization to get real about the impact you are signing up to create, not just what you hope will happen. While dreaming big and setting lofty goals, such as ending world hunger, can inspire your stakeholders, these are better left for your mission statement rather than your theory of change.

This is something that I have also come across in my nonprofit career. The sector is full of wonderful World Savers with great intentions, but they sometimes fall short in realism and linear thinking! If nonprofit organizations want to be successful, they need to craft programs and guiding theories of change that are grounded in realistic – if difficult to achieve – goals and action plans.