Why I like theory of change
Updated: Sep 24, 2018
I've had so many conversations about impact strategy or setting outcomes that start with worried faces, strained voices over the phone or occasionally sheer panic about the amount of work involved. Read on if you want to worry less and find out more about how to develop an impact strategy yourself.
Getting clarity - real clarity, across your project or organisation - about what you want to achieve and how best to do it can be hard when you're busy delivering. How do I bring a stressed charity leader, funding manager or voluntary group back to ground to work out their top impact priorities? We talk through their understanding of why their organisation exists, what they want to change, what they are delivering to achieve change and then how they need to act as an organisation to deliver well.
Then, and only then, do I mention that we've just completed a simple theory of change together.
What's all the fuss?
Do you ever struggle with how to really define what you're wanting to achieve on a particular programme or as an organisation? Do you want to feel more confident about whether what you're considering investing in is going to have the impact you've set out? Do you worry that you need to involve users better in defining all of this?
A flexible attitude to theory of change can help all this, without it being a terribly complex task. It's not a panacea and nor is it the straight-jacket that some claim. I use a theory of change approach often, primarily as a way to open up conversations across organisations and with stakeholders. I design the framework for discussion in ways that I think will best suit participants in the discussion. You can do that to, with the resources I link to later in this article.
What's the criticism?
TOC is jargonistic and some decry TOC for being too rigid, a straight jacket. Others cite the supposed misuse of TOCs - for instance when they are not sufficiently evidence-based.
But things are what you make 'em and how you use 'em. Do what you want with it. Play with the structure, keep it live, colour your ideas in bright colours around your office. But whatever you do, use it as a framework for what it's best at: finding common ground across your organisation and with your stakeholders about why you exist; rally around it and keep the focus about what's going to work best, especially when you simply can't deliver everything you want to.
We all know that capacity is a very real issue in many organisations, and there are many people like me who can help facilitate a session to refresh your goals and explore your effectiveness. But sometimes it's simply about knowing where to find the resources to help you take a DIY approach, so here's my go-to list:
New Philanthropy Capital’s (NPC’s) practical guide on creating your theory of change is a great place to start. It takes you through every stage of the process, even down to how to run the workshops if you need it.
Charities Evaluation Service are great, I especially like to use a planning triangle to start off my goal setting. It's the most simple framework for setting your impact/outcomes strategy, do it in 5 mins or get your team and service users around a lunch table and start some conversations with it.
The financial capability strategy for the U.K. includes some simple guidance on developing a theory of change along with some templates. And this is all set within their handy online evidence hub which supports organisations to develop their evaluation strategies - added bonus.
For really in depth guidance look at http://www.theoryofchange.org/what-is-theory-of-change/faqs/. Beware, the guidance makes it sound like a mammoth task but if you like detail and you want to dive deep, you’ll probably love it.
One thing...the jargon: stop worrying about it. Outcomes, impact, change, difference made, goals, ultimate goals, aims, purpose... Who cares what terms the funders use, or what sounds most impressive to donors and supporters?
Start with what makes sense to you and think about how to communicate it to different audiences later.
Finally, here are some of my favourite examples of theories of change which are helping organisations articulate to the world and internally what they do, how they do it and what they need to measure:
Money Advice Trust theory of change in 2 pages
NPC 's own theory of change
Onion Collective - prize for the most beautiful theory of change
London Funders - an interactive theory of change
VSO International have a mix of visual and narrative description to convey what they want to achieve.
The HIV/AIDS Alliance are another organisation that have developed a detailed report around their theory of change.
And if video is your thing, look at Student Hubs’ simple but compelling theory of change
If I’ve wetted your appetite, good luck with developing your impact strategy through a theory of change. And if it’s still feeling a little much, give me a call.