Frequently Asked Questions: Theory of Change and Evaluation

How can a theory of change help with evaluation?

A good theory of change can clarify what should be measured, when, how, and by whom. One grantmaker explained that constructing a theory of change poses four crucial questions that can lead to an effective evaluation: “Is the intervention meaningful? Is it plausible? Is it doable by this particular organization? And is it measurable?” Those questions apply whether the “intervention” is a large foundation’s entire grantmaking strategy or a local afterschool project funded by a small family foundation. To make sure the theory lends itself to evaluation, a consultant who often works with foundations offers two pieces of advice: First, emphasize the importance of “basic quantitative data collection to capture relevant figures, such as number of beneficiaries, money spent, numbers hired, et cetera.” Second, identify points of inquiry at which you can reasonably expect to see specific outcomes, focusing on program elements that link most directly to your long-term desired impacts. Some of those points may occur at shorter intervals, while others may apply only after several years. Again, these suggestions are equally relevant to foundation-wide and project-specific theories of change.

Do grantees’ theories of change help foundations assess the impact of their grantmaking?

Most foundations that ask grantees to produce theories of change also use those documents as blueprints for reporting on the progress of their work. According to one grantmaker, he and his colleagues compare reports against milestones set out in the grantee’s theory of change, conduct regular site visits, and catch up with grantees regularly. They also use outside evaluators to interview grantees toward the end of a multi-year grant period. Yet developing a reporting format that colleagues agree on and that’s also workable for grantees can take some discussion. “Some people felt like qualitative information is just fine, and so we’ll collect vignettes each year,” said one grantmaker regarding the conversation inside her foundation, “but we also had people who wanted much more hard data."

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Mapping Change.