The theory of everything (at NCVO)

We’ve recently shared our theory of change for NCVO on our website. This map of the difference we plan to make for the voluntary sector is the product of some hard organisation-wide thinking over the last 18 months.

Here I’ll tell you about why we did it and how we got there. If you’re thinking of creating your own theory of change, we hope you’ll be able to learn from our experience.

Why make the effort?

Theory of change is a hot topic right now. Our NCVO Charities Evaluation Services team supports voluntary organisations to use theory of change to show how their work will make a difference in the short, medium and long term.

Over the last few years at NCVO, we’ve been improving the way we measure the change our work makes, as I wrote about in a previous post. Our problem was that we were team or project-focused in our impact measurement, missing some of the overall picture of the whole organisation’s impact.

We hoped that a theory of change for the whole of NCVO would help us collect data for evaluation more systematically and make our work planning more joined up and focused on the impact we want to make. As an infrastructure organisation, we face particular challenges in articulating, and providing evidence of, our value because our outcomes are so far from the front-line impact. So we also wanted the theory of change to help us communicate the difference we make to others.

It would have been easy to say we’re too big and complex to have a whole organisation theory of change, but there was no denying we should walk our talk and give it a go.

Leading the process

We were lucky to have some theory of change experts in-house in our NCVO Charities Evaluation Services team, and I appreciate that their facilitation was a big leg-up for us in this process.

It was also a good learning process for them. They tell me that developing a theory of change for your own organisation is more painful than supporting another organisation through the process. Being part of the work and relationships gave the facilitators a good background, but they had to tread a fine line in being impartial and true to the process as well.

Starting points

We already have an organisation-wide strategy and we weren’t about to throw it out. Nor did we want to discount the theories of change that we already had for teams or projects. But we also wanted a theory of change to clearly show the links between our work, the intended high-level changes in the strategy and the smaller changes, or intermediate outcomes, we wanted to provide evidence for along the way.

We used the four external-facing aims from our strategy as a structure, and arranged one workshop to discuss each aim. Before the workshops we held drop-in sessions for staff to get them familiar with the language used in theory of change – so they were clear about the difference between impact, outcomes and outputs.

The ‘meat’ of the process

Each workshop was attended by around 20 staff members and trustees. To focus discussion, and make best use of time, we created a draft theory related to each aim beforehand and displayed it on post-it notes on the wall – this made the drafts easy to move around, add to or, in some cases, tear up. We debated them, made sure our main work was represented and came up with a roughly agreed theory.

Next we made a master map for the whole organisation and displayed it in our office for a few weeks so all staff could comment. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we came up with an agreed working copy.

What we learned

We had great engagement across the organisation and hugely appreciated the time and enthusiasm staff put in – we had support from the top, but it was led by staff. The participative approach helped us draw on the expertise of staff and we hope it’s made us all want to use the theory.

It was a long process: six months for us to get a first draft and around 18 months in total including planning, refinement and publishing. While keeping interest and momentum was a challenge, we learned to relish the process and the debates it brought up as the most important part.

Another challenge – one I think many organisations face – was around how to include our internal-facing work in the theory. Our HR, finance, facilities, fundraising and IT work are vital to NCVO’s  sustainability and enables us to support voluntary organisations, but we didn’t know how to do them justice without introducing a lot of complexity. So we decided to prioritise our external-facing work in our first theory. Since then, staff have been developing a separate theory focused on our internal work, showing how everything we do links to the change we want to help make for the sector.

What’s next?

Since creating our theory we have made it the foundation of our planning process. This autumn we’ve focused our planning sessions for our 2018-19 work on the end outcomes of the theory so our work plans are really clearly directed towards the difference we want to make for voluntary organisations; this will help us work more across teams. We’ve also been fortunate to have the commitment of our trustees in resourcing a follow-on project to improve our impact measurement using the theory. I’ll write more about that in a future post.

More information

Have a look at our current theory of change.

If you’d like the more official take on how to develop a theory read our how-to guide.

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Megan Griffith Gray Megan is our head of planning, digital and communications. She leads NCVO's strategic planning and reporting as well as our digital and communications team.

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