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Theory of Change - do you have one?

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

I know you've noticed.

The calm before the storm, that is. The 4th Quarter Storm -- you know it's coming.

While all your friends are out there celebrating sweater weather and pumpkin spice and falling leaves, you're researching Giving Tuesday strategies and completing a 3 month social media calendar and planning your year end event and maybe even a staff Christmas party, m'iright?

I know this because I am walking alongside a few clients right now who feel just like you. Some of them are working hard on their year-end campaign and are a little unsure of which ask is the best ask this year. In all fairness, when you are in the business of doing good, it can be difficult to determine which of your important programs your constituents are going to get behind.

However, we all know by now that an unspecific campaign is an unsuccessful campaign.

Donors and customers need a good reason to invest their limited resources in your cause vs. a million others. "We haven't yet raised our budget" is simply not good enough. We must provide them a compelling reason.

We develop this compelling reason by building a case that is both rich in story and backed by data. A case that begins with a Theory of Change.

If you're new to the concept, Theory of Change (ToC) is essentially a document your organization can use to bring awareness to a problem in the world, propose a solution you are uniquely positioned to offer, and demonstrate proof of your ability to positively impact this problem -- thereby generating change.

A well-iterated Theory of Change serves both foundationally and practically.


  1. It raises important questions to consider when developing your strategic plan

  2. It identifies the resources required to accomplish your mission

  3. It defines how outcomes and impact will be measured

  4. It dictates necessary actions to bring about change

  5. It determines a timeline for implementation


  1. It aids in building the case for your organizations’ important work

  2. It can be used in crafting fundraising appeals, campaigns, and grant applications

  3. It is a foundational step in establishing an effective M&E protocol

  4. It makes you sound smart and helps to establish you as a thought leader

  5. It prevents your organization from investing time and money into projects unlikely to succeed

Hopefully by now I have convinced you that your organization needs to develop a ToC if you haven’t already. Let's talk about getting started!

As ever, I will approach this from the most basic point of view, using simple language because pretentiousness has no place in development. If you're looking for a higher-level approach, I’ll smatter a few additional resources throughout this article for you to check out.

Let's begin by stating the impact your organization seeks to have in the world - aka your ultimate goal. This is the problem you exist to solve.

You most likely have this well in mind, however your mission/vision statement is typically a good place from which to pull specific language. If you don't yet have a mission or vision statement, don't worry. The ToC process will actually help you to form one. Amazing!

It is helpful if you can be as specific as possible about your ultimate goal -- and keep it grounded rather than lofty. For example, saying you want to “End Global Poverty” is going to make for a really complex theory of change with a number of pathways and preconditions that will prove difficult to evaluate (and require a ream of butcher paper to map out). Saying instead that you will: “Alleviate poverty amongst the Shudra people of Western Bengal” is going to make for a much more direct and demonstrable ToC.

Our next step is to operationalize this goal by determining what indicators must be present to demonstrate change, including: to whom will this change be expressed, and in what timeline? We will then identify the measurements we will use to demonstrate that we have achieved actual change and how we will realize when we have achieved enough change to make an actual difference.

Following our example, our research as an organization may determine that poverty eradication amidst the Shudra people requires 90% of the population to be living above the poverty line. Additional study may tell us that this will require an increased earning of 1500 rupees per month across 50% of the current adult population. Knowing this, we can then consider a timeline by which we believe we can accomplish this change.

Leading us to the next step in our process of backwards mapping, somehting known as preconditions. Don't be intimidated by the new vocabulary! Preconditions are simply preliminary outcomes that must exist in order for our ultimate goal to be realized - they are essentially building blocks or intermediary steps along our pathway of change.

In our example, preconditions that would enable 50% of the Shudra population to increase their income by 1500 rupees per month might require:

  1. Greater employability

  2. Improved health

  3. Access to education

  4. Access to systems of justice

  5. Gender equity

It is important at this stage to consider which of these preconditions we can actually affect with our current resources. Perhaps our organization has the capacity and support of stakeholders to impact employability and education, but we need to outsource healthcare, gender equity, and justice. We should not expect to be able to solve every problem, however, if a precondition is necessary in order to effectively accomplish our ultimate goal, we will either need to bring in additional outside expertise or revamp our original goal.

We now need to operationalize these 5 preconditions, just as we did our ultimate goal. What indicators must be present to demonstrate an increase of greater employability? Note - we are not looking to add programs or interventions yet - we are simply looking for the “proof in the pudding” for each of these 5 building blocks. Perhaps our indicators for greater employability would be:

  1. 90% of Shudra adults have a demonstrable trade skill

  2. 80% of Shudra adults have graduated high school

  3. 60% of Shudra adults have attended a job readiness course

  4. There is a 70% increase in number of safe childcare facilities in the region

Now for the moment we've all been waiting for -- interventions! These are the amazing programs and activities that will allow us to actually affect change. At this stage we want to list broad titles and descriptions -- we will take the time to plan the details later.

To continue with our example, we have already determined that our organization is able to address the preconditions of employability and education and have operationalized these preconditions. We have recognized that we are not able to address healthcare, justice, and gender related issues and will bring in partner organizations to collaborate in these areas. Remember - we can’t be good at everything!

We are now going to list the different activities/programs (aka interventions) we can initiate to achieve the indicators we have noted for the two preconditions within our scope. Let’s look at employability as an example:

  1. INDICATOR: 50% of Shudra adults have a demonstrable trade skill

    1. Activity 1: Establish or fund vocational training opportunities for Shudra people

    2. Activity 2: Promote and fund internships and apprenticeship programs for Shudra people

  2. INDICATOR: 80% of Shudra adults have graduated high school

    1. Activity 1: Fund school fees for Shudra youth through secondary school

    2. Activity 2: Improve nutrition programs in area schools

  3. INDICATOR: 50% of Shudra adults have attended a job readiness course

    1. Activity 1: Establish or fund community job readiness programs in major centers

    2. Activity 2: Incentivize attendance in these courses

  4. INDICATOR: 70% increase in number of safe childcare facilities

    1. Activity 1: Establish and fund high quality daycare facilities in major centers

    2. Activity 2: Commit to training, equipping, and employing trustworthy childcare providers

Nice! You have now identified 8 key activities that will ideally lead to the realization of your precondition of establishing greater employability for the Shudra people. Don't stop until you have completed this process for each of your preconditions - even if that process means handing off the activities to a qualified partner.

When you have finished this stage of your ToC, it will be time to list the resources needed to accomplish your activities - aka inputs. Hint - these are both tangible and intangible items that include both physical and human capital acquired via fundraising or investment. These are typically required as a part of a grant application, another reason why developing a ToC is so helpful!

Congratulations! You have now provided a process for your board and/or key stakeholders to understand the specific areas in which your organization will influence change, the pathway you will follow, the indicators that allow you to know when you have arrived, and the activities and resources necessary to get there.

"Your final step is to test your assumptions: Ask:

  1. Is this theory of change PLAUSIBLE? Have we created a compelling story about the pathway of change that would lead to the long-term goal in this community?

  2. Is this theory of change FEASIBLE? Do we have the capacities and resources to implement the strategies that would be required to produce the outcomes in the pathway of change?

  3. Is this theory TESTABLE? Have we specified how success will be measured clearly enough that we can recognize progress toward our goal when we see it? Have we defined indicators for each outcome in clear terms that a researcher or evaluator can use to produce a research plan?”

If we were to backward map a simple ToC flow-chart style, it might look a little something like this:

Your ToC is now clear - you are proposing that your organization exists to solve a significant problem by implementing your very clever programs/activities which will then realize the certain outcome that you believe will contribute to solving the previously stated (significant) problem. Excellent work you!

Note - one tricky word in the above run-on sentence must be dealt with if we are to ensure robust support of our mission -- you got it -- BELIEVE.

Up until now, we have made a bold claim, and while bold claims may be excellent for marketing and recruiting purposes, they are not enough to prove impact.

If you consider the perspective of a consumer who has just been sold a product promising a certain result, you purchase that product in good faith that it will live up to its claim. If it does not, you return it and tell your friends to shop elsewhere. The same standard is applied to nonprofits and social enterprises -- if your organization makes a claim, you better be able to back it up -- with evidence.

In this way, a TOC must work hand-in-hand with a measurement and evaluation system, and in fact, is the perfect place to begin when first establishing that system. The ToC tells us which indicators need to be in place (measurement) and how to know when we have attained our impact (evaluation).

When it comes to creating their year-end strategy, I am advising my clients to develop a ToC if they haven't already. To use this process as a way to map backward, beginning with their ultimate goal, and identifying and operationalizing preconditions in order to form/identify programs most worthy of funding.

If they commit to this process, they will acquire the ability to demonstrate which programs need resourcing and be able to communicate what those programs are going to accomplish -- including the indicators that will prove their success. This will make people want to give them their money.

With a completed ToC, we can not only share about our programs in a meaningful way -- we can do so credibly -- explaining to investors how the program(s) they fund will achieve real change. We can also show how any given program fits within the context of our ultimate goal, helping to build a case and motivate support for each of our initiatives, both from individual donors and larger foundations.

Not sure where to start with your ToC or M&E process? Wondering how this fits into your world as the owner of a social enterprise? We'd love to set up a time to hear more about the amazing work you are doing and find out how we can come alongside!

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