Theories of change – a primer

December 20, 2023

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:27 am

Organizations that thrive tend to have clarity regarding their theory of change.

What is a theory of change?  In plain language, a theory of change explains how the activities of the organization lead to accomplishment of the long-term goals an organization is working towards and how accomplishing those goals advances the mission.   

Sometimes the theory is a series of logical statements (because we do A, therefore B happens; because B happens, and we do C, therefore D happens; until one of these statements leads to the “mission” being achieved).

Sometimes the theory can best be explained via a flow chart or graphical diagram that visually displays the way different activities come together in ways that a logic chain or written statements can’t easily communicate.

Other theories of change I’ve seen are simply a series of “Strategic Assumptions” written down that collectively embody the theory. 

The format that makes sense for any particular organization is highly dependent on the circumstances – the nature of the goals being sought and mission being advanced, the types of activities pursued, and the complexity of the organization.

Why does articulating a theory of change matter?  And if it matters, how can a theory be developed?

Theories of change matter for at least five reasons.

  1. Resource Allocation: A theory of change can be a useful tool to identify how to spend scarce resources.  While there are some nonprofits that reach a scale that allows them to pursue many-pronged approaches to bringing about change, small and medium sized nonprofits almost always focus on a smaller number of strategies. 

    This is a basic function of the adage that it’s almost always more valuable to do one or two things really well than more things so-so.    

  2. Synergy: A theory of change can force an organization to think hard about how its various programs fit together to accomplish more  than the sum of the parts.  Instead of having programs A, B, and C running in silos, a theory of change can allow staff and leadership to more easily identify ways in which each of the Programs can be conducted in ways that build upon or reinforce each other.   

  3. Skill-Set Prioritization:  Having a theory of change also helps greatly in determining what skill-sets to focus on in hiring staff.   For example, if you are a nonprofit with a heavy focus on changing public policy, you might have a theory of change that focuses on grassroots pressure as a means of moving lawmakers.  Alternatively, your theory of change may focus on building strong relationships with centrist lawmakers who often hold sway.  Which theory of change should inform what type of staff skills you’d prioritize when hiring.    

    If you are a direct service nonprofit, by contrast, your alternatives might look very different.  Your theory of change may be very heavily dependent on having good relationships with the target audience you’re serving, in which case you should hire staff with a personality and track record for relationship building.  Conversely, if your theory of change is heavily focused on providing technical expertise, then technical expertise should be front and center in hiring.

    Of course, it’s easy when reading these examples to say: but we want both!  Yes, and I’d like unicorns and rainbows and leprechauns.    But when we hire candidates from the real world, we must pick and choose candidates with some strengths and other weaknesses.  Knowing what strengths are most essential to your organization is a by-product of having a theory of change.

  4. Communications and Branding: theories of change can inform how an organization brands itself publicly via its communications.   If you have a theory of change, it helps answer key questions about your message and audience.  Conversely, lacking a theory of change, it’s very easy for whoever develops your communications to settle upon messages that are problematic. 

    For example, more than once I’ve witnessed public policy organizations that lack theories of change who consistently try to both focus on pressure tactics that appeal to a base and simultaneously to use strategies based on personal relationships with centrist elected officials.  As a result, the organization’s communications are contradictory – language used to appeal to the base often sets back its personal relationship with centrists. 

    To use a somewhat analogous example from the movies:  There’s a reason a good cop, bad cop approach doesn’t work with a single cop. 

    In these cases, the organization should usually assess what allied groups are doing and then pick/choose one approach, rather than placing its communications professionals in an impossible situation.

  5. Team Alignment over Time: Lastly, theories of change can also prove really valuable as an orientation tool for new members of a team. The existing team may understand how your various activities work together towards your ultimate aims, but oftentimes new board or staff do not. On multiple occasions, I’ve found theories of change to be the best overall orientation to an organization.

So how does an organization set out to create a theory of change?

It’s definitely not rocket science. 

First, you need a clear goal or goals that advance your mission.  Until you know what change you are seeking, you can’t develop a theory for how to create the change.  The change sought by a nonprofit credit union will look very different from a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth, which will look very different than the change sought by a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. 

Yet, in each case, the first step is the same – identify one or more goals that you are seeking over a period of time (usually 2-5 years) that collectively will advance your mission.

Second, sit down with a group and describe your tentative activities and repeatedly ask “why” doing them would lead to your goal(s).  In doing this with others, I often find myself asking the question “why” 5-10 times in a row trying to tease out the steps in logic being used by participants.  In doing so, you may discover you’re making assumptions about the behavior of others that are iffy.  Or that you’re relying on allies to behave in a certain way without first securing buy-in from the allies for the strategy.

You’ll likely also discover interim outcomes that you’re seeking to achieve not because they are ends, but rather because they involve obtaining resources (money, volunteers, political power) that represents steps in the causal chain towards your ultimate end goal(s).  These interim outcomes should be celebrated, not dismissed as unimportant.

Third rebuild your list of strategies to match up with what you’ve discovered in the group exercise.  How do they fit together?  Are there ways they reinforce each other?

Fourth, write it down as a series of logical statements.  Or, if it’s easier, conduct an exercise where the team all individually creates a graphic/drawing of how the work fits together and then discuss your respective drawings. 

Most every organization I’ve worked with has been able to encapsulate its theory of change in either a page of text or a diagram.  Often times the diagram requires some explanatory text. 

Run the diagram or written theory by your board and/or others as a reality-check to see what questions they have.  You may find you’re leaving out something critical.  Or you may have made it overly complicated and you can simplify it to the bare essentials.

Of course, a theory of change – whether stand-alone or part of a strategic plan — shouldn’t be carved in stone.  A learning organization should continually evaluate and reassess its theory based on how its work plays out in reality.  You may believe that people involved in one of your programs are primed to volunteer for another program, but after 1-2 years of trying you may conclude that they’re not. 

Alternatively, the lay of the land may have shifted sufficiently to require a new theory.  Perhaps a pandemic upends a theory of change that relies on lots of in-person activities!

Do you have a theory of change that’s worked well for your organization?  Please share it with me as I’m compiling examples for a future, longer article.

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