Getting started with a theory of change

Quite recently, I led a workshop for a group of health professionals as part of a wider programme evaluation. In a previous workshop with the same group, we had developed a theory of change (ToC) for the programme. I’d used their input to construct a draft ToC and was ready to present. Standing there,  I saw a lot of crossed arms and serious faces. I wondered, had I got something wrong? Had I somehow misunderstood the outcomes we had mapped out together?

To my relief, they fully agreed with my draft ToC. Then one of the nurses asked nervously, ‘So when are we going to learn about that theory?’

The word ‘theory’ in ‘theory of change’ can sound complicated. Just as I found in the workshop, it can lead to confusion, apprehension or dismissing the whole idea. So, in honour of Small Charity Week, here’s my beginner’s introduction to ToC and how it can be useful for small charities.

What is a theory of change?

Essentially, ToC is a map of the concrete changes you want to achieve and the actions that you will take to achieve them. It is an approach that helps you to break down broad long-term changes into smaller steps – creating a route-map for your work. ToC is a process as well as a product – a way for staff, volunteers, trustees and service users to reflect together on what you want to achieve and how you will get there.

What can  a theory of change be used for ?

Planning new work

This is not about establishing a linear causal relationship between what you deliver and what you want to achieve. Instead, ToC breaks down broad, long-term changes into a series of smaller changes at different levels to understand how they are linked. A brilliant aspect of ToC is that it allows you to visualise how and what type of activities are connected with your envisaged change.

Evaluating work

In broad terms, evaluation means the process of assessing the value of something. We carry out evaluations to learn from our successes as well as our failures so that we can improve our work and achieve maximum impact. You are planning for impact when drafting your ToC. By following this route map, you have a ready-made list of intended changes linked to specific activities (or outputs). This helps you identify what you will measure (your indicators) to understand whether the changes are happening, how and for whom. Developing indicators isn’t easy, but having a good ToC means you are halfway there.

Communicating your work

In my view, this is a crucial element of ToC, be it a colourful chart with boxes and arrows or a short narrative that tells the story of your work. ToC allows you to clearly and succinctly let others know what your organisation, project or programme is trying to achieve and how you are going about it. This is handy when you need to demonstrate your work to your funders and partners.

How to develop a theory of change in a small charity

  • Small charities often have an advantage because you can involve everyone at the same time. It is still useful to get someone to own the process and link it in with a wider process eg a strategic review.
  • It may be hard to get everyone together for a full day – you may need to do shorter workshops looking at one aspect at a time. The crucial part is to develop it collaboratively. It can help if you have a draft for people to look at and comment on prepared beforehand (we call this a ‘straw ToC’).
  • You may not need a very detailed ToC for a single intervention. The CES planning triangle is a much simpler tool that still allows you to articulate what you do, what changes it will lead to and the overall change you want to achieve.
  • It is important to interrogate your theory, where you identify key assumptions you have made between the work delivered and the difference you want to make, and about the overall rationale and context. This helps you to identify the ‘weakest links’ and how to revise and strengthen your work.
  • For more information, have a look at our guide on how to develop a theory of change.

Back to my workshop presentation. The nurse who asked the question said that anything labelled a ‘theory’ would not go down well with her colleagues. It would make them feel as though they were back at school. We agreed to rename it the ‘programme summary’ because, according to that nurse, ‘that’s what it essentially is.’ We then used the ToC narrative to communicate to partners and staff more widely what the programme was aiming to achieve and how. The more detailed visual map was then used by the evaluation steering group as a reference point to guide the evaluation.

Want more?

Come on our theory of change training

Read our Knowhow pages on theory of change

Read our recent blog post on Eight reasons to love theory of change and 10 tips for developing theory of change


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Sini is a senior consultant at NCVO Charities Evaluation Services – the team helps voluntary organisations, volunteering programmes and their funders with practical impact measurement and evaluation

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