Five Essential Foundations of a Theory of Change
4 October 2017 at 8:21 am
Think Impact director Kevin Robbie, offers five building blocks to get the right foundations in place for your Theory of Change.
If you don’t have the right foundations in place then your building won’t last long. This is also true when you are designing for impact.
It doesn’t matter if you are building a high-impact not-for-profit organisation, making a philanthropic grant, commissioning government services or planning an impact investment seeking a blended social and financial return – being clear about what you want to achieve is crucial.
At Think Impact, we see a growing demand from organisations across all sectors to clearly articulate their Theory of Change (ToC).
The practice of Theory of Change development has advanced significantly in the past decade – even if the jargon still remains. Put simply, a Theory of Change is the framework that explains what you expect to happen when you fund or invest in something or carry out an activity to improve circumstances.
The approach has moved beyond being just a logical planning tool to enable good evaluation to occur. Thankfully, there is no longer the debate amongst funders about the need to measure outcomes rather than just activity and outputs. But despite this we’re still repeatedly seeing organisations from all sectors often fail to get the right foundations in place for a good Theory of Change.
The most common mistake is to start by only defining the long-term goal that they want to achieve. Funders, investors or organisations then move through a linear process of establishing inputs, then the activities, then outputs, then outcomes, to finally what impact will be achieved.
Frustration is then expressed during evaluations – “we haven’t achieved what we really wanted to achieve”.
Getting the right foundations in place can help to avoid this. These foundations are the same whether you are a funder, an investor or a not-for-profit seeking to deliver change.
The key is not to rush the first stage. To see outcomes achieved, you need to more fully understand the issue you are trying to tackle.
There are five important building blocks to this:
Understand the context
While there may be common elements to complex social issues it is relatively clearly understood that the context in which those issues are experienced is often different across demographic groups, areas, regions, and geographies. Immersion in, and understanding of the context, in which the issue is happening allows you to better comprehend what is going on for people.
This can be done by deeply engaging potential partners and users or potential users of any service in the development process. A vital component to this is not just to view the context via a “problem” lens – it is essential to understand the assets and strengths that exist in any situation. Getting clarity on the context is crucial to developing a good Theory of Change.
Weigh the evidence
While there may not be a randomised control trial (RCT) or comparison study for the issue you are tackling, there is a wealth of evidence and data now around “what works” (or doesn’t work) to tackle complex social issues.
A foundational building block for your Theory of Change should be to look closely at the evidence that exists in your area. It may need to be contextualised but taking this step is essential to design for impact. Even when you are developing an “innovative” approach you can usually find some evidence around related approaches.
Acknowledge your beliefs
Quite often this is the elephant in the room of many Theories of Change. Organisations are often driven strongly by the beliefs of the person or people wanting the change to happen. This isn’t wrong, it just has to be acknowledged and made transparent. Part of that transparency includes weighing the “belief driver” with the evidence of what works because you will be building on a shaky foundation if your belief runs counter to the evidence.
Articulate your modality (or how you want to do it)
Best summarised as “it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”.
Wading through the jargon it is clear that the logic model underpinning the Theory of Change approach has driven practice for many in the direction of being clear about “what” you will do so that the change will occur. This is an important component of the approach. An equally important foundation is to be clear “how” you want the activities to happen so that the change will occur. To do this often requires a conversation about the values your organisation has and how they will underpin the activity.
Recognise your contribution
It is now becoming more and more apparent that when tackling complex social issues, it is impossible for one organisation/funder/investor alone to solve the problem.
A vital building block for your Theory of Change is to be clear about your intended impact and more importantly what your contribution to that intended impact is. By being clear about this then you should be able to look at how you leverage your network and influence to amplify the intended change.
With these components in place you will have a firmer foundation from which to build your Theory of Change. You will be making more informed assumptions about the approach you believe will achieve impact. It will also help you to communicate the impact you want to achieve to both internal and external stakeholders.
It is important to remember that a Theory of Change is still just a theory. It is there to act as a guide for you. It provides a firm basis for you to evaluate what you are doing. But for that evaluation to be useful it needs to be adaptive. You need to build in regular feedback loops to capture the lessons that are being learned and continuously refine your theory.
About the author: Kevin Robbie is a director at Think Impact with more than 25 years experience working in the for-purpose sector. He was previously executive director at Social Ventures Australia and CEO of United Way Australia. Prior to that he has been an advisor to the UK government, a consultant to the UK Big Lottery Fund and chief executive of one of Scotland’s leading social enterprises.