Why Develop and Use a Theory of Change?

  • Establish common principles and vocabulary. Reflecting on work she did to help grantees develop a theory of change, one grantmaker said, “It provides a common language to talk together among yourselves and to people out in the public about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.” A consultant who helped plan a new international fund for social justice made a related point: “Without a clearly articulated theory of change,” he explained, “planning is almost inevitably ad hoc, prone to undue influence by key individuals and in danger of leading an organization in directions not necessarily focused on the mission.”
  • Make implicit assumptions explicit. Most people have a theory of change that drives their work, though it is often rooted in implicit assumptions that haven’t necessarily been vetted openly or logically thought through. One grantmaker, for example, invited a grantee to develop a theory of change for a project to expand an award-winning recovery program for people with drug addictions. As the conversation unfolded, the grantee’s staff realized that they had always assumed that a 30-day program was the right length of time for every individual’s recovery. Fairly quickly, they began to question their assumptions: How, they wondered, had their program settled on 30 days in the first place? Would being flexible about the number of days enable them to treat more individuals successfully? The grantmaker remarked, “They looked at their program through a different lens and said, ‘Our outcomes are good, but why aren’t they better? How can we make them better?’”
  • Design more realistic plans of action. An evaluator who often works with grantees explained, “I think the value added of theory of change is that it really forces people to question their own assumptions about whether what they’re trying to do will work.” “A theory of change is not a program plan,” said one grantmaker, “but it establishes habits of mind that let you create a good program plan.” As another grantmaker put it, theory of change helps to develop a program that is “plausible, doable, and testable.”
  • Clarify lines of responsibility. Because a theory of change helps surface the implicit nature of a program, both grantee and grantmaker end up with a very clear idea of what they’re accountable for. A grantee recounted that developing a theory of change “pushed us to say what outcomes we were willing to hold ourselves accountable for, meaning that we would hold ourselves accountable to meeting them, to tracking them, and all of that."
  • Create more meaningful evaluations. The director of a foundation said that evaluation at his organization used to take a very traditional approach, in which external evaluators would essentially “make a scrapbook of some snapshots that lookedback in time against some of the work that had been done.” It was not a dynamic tool for program officers to work with, nor was it very helpful in advancing the foundation’s mission. After program officers became involved in working with grant- ees to develop theories of change, evaluation became more integrated within their daily and ongoing work, sparking regular moments of organizational learning.
  • Maintain healthy skepticism. “A theory,” said one evaluator, “is something you test. Ideally, its components are based in empirical research, but — and this is the point — the theory is not proven.” A theory of change can be valuable, she explained, for helping grantmakers and grantees check back over time to see if the elements they believed would be crucial have actually made their anticipated contributions.

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.