Eight reasons to love theory of change

Theory of change (ToC) is a planning tool that helps organisations evaluate their impact. It takes the form of a visual diagram or narrative that shows how you expect outcomes to occur over the short, medium and longer term as a result of your work.

I know ToC is a bit flavour of the month. I wouldn’t argue that it is a panacea or a one-size fits all, and I know some organisations that – despite liking the approach – would rather use a different name for it. But whatever you call it, there are really good reasons you should like this approach.

It builds on extensive experience

ToC is a logical development of what we as a sector have done before. For a long time we’ve known it was important to clarify the story of a project before it could be properly evaluated. Before ToC in its current incarnation, Charities Evaluation Services (now NCVO CES) developed its own planning triangle, which is in effect a basic form of ToC.

It’s accessible

ToC uses language that already has currency within the sector, so should not require lots of scary new jargon. It also fits with the values of many of us in the sector, being highly participatory and consultative. Its participatory nature builds evaluation thinking and skills in its participants, something that we have always valued very highly. Finally, although there is interesting ToC software out there (we are currently experimenting with Changeroo, for example), ToC maps can easily be made in Word, Excel or PowerPoint.

It’s impact-focused

ToC helps embed impact thinking in organisational culture. The focus becomes not what you do, but what you achieve.

It helps you deal with the problems of long-term change

ToC can be especially useful when your desired end outcomes or impacts are beyond the timescale of your intervention and/or funding period. When you can only measure the first few steps of your outcomes chain, ToC helps explain why these are important in a wider theory.

It encourages critical, analytical thinking

I do not subscribe to the notion that it is only real theory of change when you spend many days angsting over all your contextual variables, where to put your contribution line and which are the critical causal assumptions. However, the approach does encourage critical thinking, and you can bring some of this into your work even if you are doing a quick and dirty theory.

It’s still evolving – and you can help shape it

Nobody owns theory of change, and it’s still developing, meaning it is exciting to work with. There are a lot of very interesting people sharing their learning on this (see Hivos or NPC for example) and we at NCVO feel like we are constantly pushing the boundaries of how it can be used. For example, using it as the foundation for strategy, presenting it in new ways and adapting to specific contexts.

It turns evaluators into partners

Helping an organisation develop their ToC requires evaluators (internal or external) to become partners with practitioners. This involves being a critical friend, helping to shape effective interventions. Of course this requires delicate handling, as the evaluator needs to maintain some objectivity in case they have to report negative findings later, but this delicate balancing act is both common and possible (see my recent blog post on evaulating faith for more on the insider/outsider role of evaluators). In our experience this deep involvement of both evaluator and practitioner results in a better evaluation.

It can be used flexibly for lots of different purposes

Yes, ToC is an excellent tool for evaluation, at service, project, programme or even system level. However, it’s also being very successfully used by NCVO members and clients for a range of other purposes. These include planning new interventions and strategies, building consensus and improving communications.


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Avatar photo Sally Cupitt is Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She been a consultant at CES for over 20 years. She specialises in independent evaluations of voluntary sector organisations, research and helping organisations to develop and implement monitoring and evaluation frameworks and systems.

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