What to do with a new theory of change

Last year we developed a theory of change. We’re really proud of it, and we wanted to make sure that we got as much value out of it as possible. Theories of change may look good on a website, but the real test is in how you use them. So, a year on from developing the theory of change, how has it made a difference to what we do?


Our theory of change has been really helpful in communicating the value of the work we do. This can sometimes be challenging for an infrastructure organisation, as our outcomes are so far from the front-line impact. Some of us have found it particularly useful for speaking in public about NCVO. It means that we can link the work we do to our outcomes and explain how it helps to achieve them. We can also then explain what benefits this has for the voluntary sector as a whole. We’ve published the theory of change on our website so that our members and others can see what difference we aim to make and how we do this.

Planning our work

We’ve also used the theory of change in our organisational planning process. We based our planning process on the long-term outcomes of the theory of change, for example ‘voluntary organisations are more sustainably resourced’. It worked really well to enable people to think outside their specific business areas and come up with great new ideas for how we can support the wider voluntary sector. It has also helped us to keep the benefits of our work to our members and the wider sector at the forefront of our minds as we plan new activities.

We’re still refining how we use the theory for planning. Some of our outcomes are very broad and cover a huge range of NCVO’s work, for example ‘voluntary organisations are better able to deliver their work.’ This year we explored this in two workshops and this worked better than trying to cover everything in one, but it made it more difficult to get a fully rounded picture of the priorities.

Teams within NCVO have also started using the theory to plan their more specific work. We conducted a strategic review of our digital products and services last year. A part of this we mapped all of NCVO’s digital products against the theory. This helped us to see where the gaps were and explore what new products are needed, as well as where users needed to be guided between products, or where products could be combined. We also use the theory of change outcomes to plan all content and communications work: any time a new request comes in from a team, it’s linked to one or more of the outcomes. This helps us to review how well our content and communications support the difference we want to make.

Monitoring, evaluation and reporting

We’ve also used the theory of change to improve how we monitor our work and the difference we make. We worked with our NCVO Charities Evaluation Services team to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework that we now use for quarterly reporting to trustees. Like the theory of change process, this took a long time and a lot of meetings and discussions with different individuals across the organisation, and we’re still refining and updating it. But it’s given us a much better picture of how our work adds value. It’s also shown us what we don’t know and helped us to set priorities for investing in evaluation or research projects to fill in the gaps. You can find out more about how the process worked and what we’ve learned in our case study.

What we’ve learned

It’s important to get the pace of change right so that you balance keeping momentum with not overloading everyone. People have limited capacity for organisational change projects involving lots of collaboration and workshops. When we developed the monitoring and evaluation framework we made a real effort to make it easy for people – going to team meetings and meeting with individuals rather than organising lots of extra workshops. People really appreciated us being responsive to their needs and open to changing indicators when we needed to.

Linked to this, it’s important to be open to further change and refinement as processes get embedded. We tweaked our planning process for 2018/19 and will almost certainly do so again for 2019/20. We’ve also refined the monitoring and evaluation framework over the course of the year as we’ve noticed gaps or aspects that haven’t worked.

The process of developing a theory of change is really valuable. It brought people together across the organisation and enabled us to have a better understanding of the work of NCVO and the outcomes we aim to achieve. But that is only of limited value unless the theory is used in practice across planning, communication and evaluation. By using our theory, we have become more user-centred, collaborative and creative. We’re looking forward to reviewing the theory to make sure it remains useful and valid, and to continuing to refine how we use it.

You can find out more about how to develop a theory of change and how to develop monitoring and evaluation frameworks on our Knowhow Nonprofit pages. If you would like some support with developing or using a theory of change, NCVO Charities Evaluation Services team can help.


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Megan Griffith Gray, Director of Strategy and Transformation Megan is director of strategy and transformation at NCVO and is responsible for the organisation’s strategy, planning and reporting. She also leads the digital, marketing and technology functions.

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