Creating a theory of change

Change of planTheory of Change has come up in two recent Profit on Purpose interviews. Petra Ingram, CEO of The Brooke, initially explained how theirs has not only reshaped programmes and practices, but has also reshaped their entire strategy. And Chris Wright, CEO of Catch 22 explained how his organisation’s Theory of Change was seen to offer a distinctive value to commissioners.

Since then, I’ve obviously had a number of questions via e-mail around the topic, so here’s a very quick guide, starting with an illustration.

A few weeks ago I was speaking with the CEO of an international advocacy organisation who had received a grant from Comic Relief to help extremely poor villages in a rural part of Africa. The grant was to help the communities learn how to advocate for themselves with their Local Authorities, so they could get the basic services they needed. The expected outcome would be that the villagers would secure a number of specific services, the ultimate impact of which would be some sustainable economic and health benefits.

Unfortunately, as the CEO explained, the Local Authority hadn’t reacted in the way they’d expected, and instead, decided to demolish the village and evict the community. It’s a pretty tough story to have to play back to a grant funder, especially when the plan was to make another application on the back of a roaring success. The issue was that their theory, of how they could bring about the change they were seeking, was flawed, or at least, was incomplete. Their belief that self advocacy alone could create the impact they envisaged was sadly invalidated by their experience, and their next step would need to be to change, or rebuild their Theory of Change based on the new evidence.

If your organisation is serious about creating social change, a ToC is powerful tool that should be in your armoury. It’s a way to move beyond gut-feel and received wisdom; to push past “doing what we’ve always done”. And it’s a way to map, communicate, and engage others in doing what works and testing what might. If it sounds like something you should explore, here’s a quick 5-step process for how to go about it:

  1. Start with your ultimate goal for the person (or animal) whose situation you want to change. Usually you can get this straight from your vision or mission statement. For example, it might be: “adults with mental illness have the same opportunities as anyone else”.
  2. Identify the most significant barriers that prevent that situation from happening. You might do this through some desktop research, a series of client or community workshops, surveys, interviews, visits, whatever gives you the broadest perspective on the issue. In the example above, you may discover the greatest barriers are: the stigma of label itself; navigation and access to information and services; and isolation, from loss of employment, social connections, family etc. (Note: I’m not saying for a moment that they actually are!)
  3. Hypothesise different ways these barriers could be removed, negated or overcome; what would need to be true for each one, in order for it to no longer be a barrier? Recognise where some things may be preconditions for others, for instance, overcoming stigma and preconception may be precursors for opening up access to employment, or alternatively, you might decide that showcasing successful social enterprises run by people with mental illness, is a viable way to help overcome stigma and preconceptions. The beliefs you form through the process, about all of the things that would need to happen, their dependencies and causal relationships, this is your theory of change.
  4. Decide which the most critical areas to address are, and which of those you should own, partner with others to unlock, or leave to people who are better positioned than you are to enable that particular change.
  5. Test, validate and refine the key assumptions inherent in your theory. This is an ongoing process and can take years. The good news is that, if everything you do is geared to delivering the change you want to see, then every outcome and impact you measure is an opportunity to prove or disprove parts of your theory of change.

To hear more about how Theory of Change can be used to redefine practices and strategy, check out our Profit on Purpose interview with Petra Ingram, or if you want to find out more on the background, a great place to start is here:

One response to “Creating a theory of change

  1. Pingback: Petra Ingram on using Theory of Change to drive your Strategy | Profit on Purpose·

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