This guide is designed to help funders and those who implement programs realize their ambitious social change efforts. It explores theory of change models, processes and products as well as key theory of change concepts, benefits and limitations.
What Is a Theory of Change Model?
A theory of change is both a conceptual model and a concrete product that reflects the model. A fundamental component of any large-scale social change effort, theory of change can help teams strengthen strategies and maximize results by charting out the work ahead, what success looks like and how to get there.
Developing a theory of change model involves making explicit collective assumptions about how a change will unfold. This work can help the funders and leaders of a social change effort clearly articulate their objectives, discuss equity considerations, define roles of decision-making authority and enable useful measurement and learning.
Why a Theory of Change Is Important
A theory of change serves as a good basis for measurement, experimentation and learning. It can help teams test assumptions related to adapting and implementing strategies and clarify complicated pathways to change. For approaches that are complex — where the operating environment is fluid and unpredictable and may influence a strategy or its implementation in an unknown way — a theory of change is an especially important tool. It serves as a compass, illuminating the desired goals, informing adaptations and identifying opportunities for meaningful measurement.
About The Guide
The Annie E. Casey Foundation first commissioned ORS Impact to develop a practical theory of change guide in 2004. Since then — in recognition of how this work has changed over the years — the Foundation commissioned an updated guide. This new resource reflects how theory of change thinking has evolved by:
explicitly identifying how a theory of change can and should advance equity and engage community members in meaningful ways; and
providing detailed explanations about what it takes to develop inclusive theories of change and use them to advance powerful, sustained results.
Creating a social work or human services theory of change can help teams identify where logic and linkages are weak, expose biases and divergent viewpoints, and build stronger, clearer strategies. Groups can also leverage this work to resolve fuzziness and tension — and the earlier this refinement happens, the better.
Not a Neutral Tool
As teams clarify core elements of their strategies, assumptions and expectations, they will have opportunities to determine a number of value-affirming details. These include: whose voices to include, who makes key decisions and how to identify and address historic biases.
Multiple Perspectives Wanted
The process of developing a theory of change should consider who has a seat — and a voice — at the table. An inclusive process considers barriers to and levers for advancing equity, and it involves asking questions like: How do the participating systems or institutions treat people differently based on their race, home language, ZIP code or background?
Outcomes can be “mapped” in a linear or causal sequence, though change is typically more complex than a simple cause-and-effect relationship.
Common Elements and Advice
Step-by-step guidance can help groups clarify and document their thinking about each theory of change component and explore the related underlying assumptions.