Understanding Theories of Change
05 June 2012
Many funders, organisational development providers and consultants are using Theory of Change (ToC) to encourage organisations to focus on long-term change rather than project-focussed outputs and outcomes. The result is a rush of organisations eager to jump on the Theory of Change bandwagon. ONTRAC Issue 51 (May 2012) published by the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC) explains the emergence of ToC and, building on four case studies, analyses some experiences and applications of ToC across differing contexts.
Although people have long explored theories of social change, the concept of ‘Theory of Change’ first emerged in the mid-1990s in response to the challenge of assessing the impact of complex social development programmes. Carol Weiss – author of the first publication on Theory of Change – popularised the term as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the steps that lead to the long-term goal and the connections between programme activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way.
Introducing the topic, Maureen O'Flynn notes that if developed and used effectively, ToC can help to:
- provide a framework to check progress towards change (to complement project logic) and to stay on course
- test the weak links in the change pathway (right people? right strategies? right outcomes?)
- document lessons learnt about what really changes in relation to our efforts
- keep the process of implementation, and impact assessment transparent, so everyone knows what changing and how
- report more effectively to funders, policymakers and boards.
In the other articles, James Treasure-Evans outlines the development of Concern Universal’s Theory of Change, and the challenges and benefits that they found during the process. Stephen Fraser, writing about the experiences of the SAVI programme in Nigeria, emphasises how developing a Theory of Change can help programmes to retain a focus on processes.
Duncan Green provides an alternative approach to developing a theory of social change, describing how an Oxfam programme in Tanzania took on an evolutionary acceleration approach to its work on accountability. Finally, Isabel Vogel reports on the interesting results of a DFID- commissioned review of people’s experience with Theory of Change.
ToC training course
INTRAC will hold its first training course on Theory of Change in October 2012. The objective of the course is to give participants a solid understanding of what ToC are; how they complement other planning processes; and how they can be applied to organisations and to programmes. The course will build participants’ skills in developing a ToC for their own organisation or programme, and allows them to experiment with developing elements of a ToC.