10 tips for developing a theory of change

Between us, our team of 10 staff and 30 associates at NCVO Charities Evaluation Services must have done many hundreds of theories of change. Our theory of change (ToC) pages on the Knowhow Nonprofit website give some great step-by-step guidance as to how to develop a ToC. To complement that, here are our ten top tips to help you develop a great ToC yourself.

1. Clarify your purpose.

ToC can be simple or complex depending on how you wish to use it. Do you want your theory for some simple communications, to help plan a project, or for an in-depth three-year impact evaluation?

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel

In our ideal future, it won’t be necessary for every organisation to create its own ToC or approach to impact assessment. But for now, at least make sure you build on the good work already done by others. Have a look at other people’s theories and approaches to see what you can learn or whether you might develop shared approaches (and if you create a theory of change please share it).

3. Keep it simple

ToC does not need to be complicated, although it should usually be complete. For highly complex interventions try nested theories, where a simple high level ToC has several more detailed underlying ones. You might also present different versions to different audiences, depending on need. We often have a high level, simplified theory for sharing with most stakeholders, and a detailed evaluation one just for those who need to know.

4. Run a workshop involving a range of stakeholders

Developing a good ToC almost always includes a workshop bringing together stakeholders. This should be an interactive event where you can hear a range of voices who might input into the theory.

Try to involve the experts in this, and no I don’t mean you must use consultants (although involving a top-notch facilitator could be useful – facilitating these workshops is hard). By experts I mean all those might be able to shed light on how and why an intervention works or is intended to work. This might include organisational staff at all levels, trustees, partner organisations, service users, volunteers. In designing your activities, find ways to ensure that less powerful voices can be heard.

5. Be creative

The jury may be out as to whether we have reached peak Post-it. However most of us still go to theory of change workshops armed with multiple A5 Post-it notes, highlighter pens, masking tape or string (to make the causal links, if you’re wondering). Asking participants to build a visual map on the wall can be interactive, fun and effective.

6. Do your preparation

A bit of preparation will make your ToC work go much more smoothly. Preparation prior to the workshop might include:

  • doing a context analysis
  • interviewing and engaging key stakeholders in advance, including sceptics
  • developing a ‘straw’ theory for a starting point within the workshop (be prepared to let people destroy this straw theory, however).

7. Interrogate your theory of change

You need to identify weaknesses and key assumptions between inputs, outputs, outcomes and impacts and about overall rationale and context. In a descriptive theory, that maps out an existing project for the purpose of evaluation, these assumptions can be the subject of the evaluation. In creative theories, developed when planning interventions or strategies, these assumptions can highlight where you need to tweak your activity to stand a better chance of achieving your desired impact.

8. Include a narrative

Well-designed visual maps are important, but remember that some people prefer words to visuals. Narratives also allow you to include the detail you can’t put on a map. Finally, and most importantly, your narrative is a record of your thinking for further down the line when memories have become hazier.

9. Be flexible

This could be in terms of definitions and approaches; one person’s theory is another person’s logic model. If you are to involve people in the process, this will involve compromise, letting them shape the theory the way they best see fit, not the way you think they ought to. Your flexibility should extend to timing, too. You can pretty much create the basics of a theory of change in one day, but you may need many more days to prepare beforehand, refine versions afterwards and consult with all the necessary stakeholders.

10. Keep ToC alive

This is not a one-off exercise. Make your theory visible, review it regularly, ensure it’s used for other aspects of organisational life like communications and strategy.

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Sally Cupitt Sally Cupitt is Head of NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She been a consultant at CES for over 15 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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