Developing a Theory of Change

Practical Theory of Change Guidance, Templates and Examples

Posted June 29, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
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This publication is comprised of four parts.

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.

The guide is organized into four parts.

Resources in Developing a Theory of Change

Theory of Change Findings & Stats

Statements & Quotations

Key Takeaway About an Effective Theory of Change

The Hallmarks of a Useful Theory of Change

Documenting a group’s core concepts, assumptions and expectations about change can take many forms. Regardless of its format, a useful theory of change will help define or clarify the same basic components. These are:

  • the broad goals being sought;
  • the strategies and related actions to implement;
  • what outcomes will follow the actions and what sequence these outcomes will take (also known as the pathway of change) to achieve the end goals; and
  • any key beliefs or assumptions about the pathway of change, including how actions will be implemented; who will implement these actions; what relationships and hypotheses connect the actions, outcomes and goals; and how long it will take to realize intermediate outcomes or end goals.