Why change needs a theory?

Theory of Change: What is it and why does it matter so much?

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

When it comes to conceptualizing an organizational effort’s impact, creating a theory of change (ToC) is one of the most commonly used but misinterpreted tools.

The term was first used by sociologist Carol Weiss as “theories of change” in an essay she authored for an Aspen Institute Roundtable in 1995 and the term is the culmination of a long history of research on theory-based evaluation.

Within this evaluation framework in mind, a theory of change is not a mere theory to be tested, but rather a framework to pinpoint key steps for your organization to take to achieve an intended result and find out how to keep track of progress.

One of the most common misunderstandings comes from the title itself: thinking that it is an academic theory. Unfortunately, that causes organizations to be overwhelmed by the idea of creating a theory that is far from implementation. On the contrary, a ToC is almost all about implementing in the most tailored way possible for your unique organization.

It gives you a strategic itinerary where you can document and monitor all the milestones you need to complete to achieve your desired state of change in your organizational effort. It is a very smart design tool you can refer to for your decision making leading your path to your solution, in other words to your desired end result.

A theory of change can be a written document or a very simple diagram consisting of several elements such as outcomes, activities, goals, assumptions, pre-conditions etc. It is mostly used in the social sector to keep track of a social transformation project, so while in a philanthropic conversation the question “What is your ToC?” is pretty common, it does not ring any bell in other contexts, especially in the business sector.

We believe every business — whether deliberately or not- creates a change; and that they should certainly intend for a positive one.

That’s why we suggest that every organization, not just limited to those focusing on social impact, consider putting this method into their tool box. This short reflection piece intends to showcase how this framework can be used in any organization; not just being limited to the third sector but rather to all that desire change in any particular field in mind.

Let’s dig in.

Impact

A ToC starts out by identifying what you desire. The Impact is all about discovering what you would like to see as an end result. Be it the eradication of poverty on earth or strengthening your employees’ innovation capacity, every initiative/project has a purpose that is linked to a desired state of mind in all levels and scale.

What is the change that you desire?

Outcomes/Outputs

For you to achieve that end result, you need to identify several outcomes; be it short term or long term. One of the most common mistakes when identifying outcomes is to list quantifiable outputs as your results, i.e. the # of people that will be involved, the # of events you will organize, etc. Outputs are all the tangible “things” that will be done, produced, created whilst your initiative/project. As tempting it is to list all the material things that will be done by the help of your initiative/project, these outputs will not suffice to see whether or to what extent you actually reached your desired transformation. That’s where outcomes will help. Outcomes are the intermediate or long term changes in the particular group’s behavior/attitude etc. that will in time lead to your end result.

You do not obviously end poverty on earth in an instant, it takes time, energy and focus.

Similarly a change in attitude and/or behavior may first necessitate a certain level of skill building. One of your outcomes may be that a certain % of your beneficiaries attain a certain % level of knowledge or skill. And when the time comes you go and evaluate whether you have achieved that outcome.

Preconditions

Sometimes when we long for a certain change that we believe that everyone will be voluntarily involved and all things will go flowers and roses. However mostly that’s not the case. You need some preconditions for your activities to work out. Whether it be the support of the executives or the mere existence of a particular digital platform there will be some preconditions you have to have in mind to make sure that your initiative/project will run smoothly.

Activities

All this thinking and theorizing is obviously to decide what you would actually go and do: are you going to give a seminar, a six-month long training or a couple of workshops? Anything creative may need to be in play? The activities part of a ToC is the backbone of your project/initiative. It will be the main part where you will plan in detail how to trigger the change you want to create.

Assumptions

And that leads to your assumptions. All the activities that you will introduce actually serve to reach a particular outcome that you have listed above, at least that’s what you assume, right?

Exactly.

All along the way of creating a ToC one makes a ton of assumptions. We think that particular training will allow the participants to reach a certain level of x or that particular process we will implement will lead to y, or if allowed that certain group of people will be willing to be a part of the initiative. It is all about being aware of what you assume and test your assumptions along the way to make sure you can intervene if things go downhill.

Resources

Once you have decided what you want, what you are going to do and how you are going to do it, you need to pinpoint exactly what you need as a resource. Usually the number of working hours, the budget for training or consultancy comes to mind. However resources are beyond monetary value. The willingness and support of the executives, the time commitment of a certain voluntary group, and the like can also be a valuable resource for your particular initiative.

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At HMD, we use the Theory of Change methodology to not only monitor and evaluate our transformation projects but also to design the most individual itinerary possible for every partner. That’s why as we move along this path we co-create, rethink and redesign whenever we need to.

How would you start out your theory of change? What is that one thing you are passionate to transform? Share with us as a comment.

If you are interested in learning more about ToC here are some resources for further reading.

SoPact (Social Impact Measurement and Management Platform). New Approach in 2020 and Beyond: Theory of Change.
https://www.sopact.com/theory-of-change

The Center for Theory of Change.
https://www.theoryofchange.org/what-is-theory-of-change/

Maoz Brown. Unpacking the Theory of Change. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2020.
https://ssir.org/articles/entry/unpacking_the_theory_of_change?utm_source=Enews&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=SSIR_Now

KUSIF (Koç Üniversitesi Sosyal Etki Forumu). Sosyal Etki Ölçümlemesi KUSIF 4 Adım Yaklaşımı. 2015
https://kusif.ku.edu.tr/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/KUSIF-Sosyal-Etki-Olcumlemesi-Kilavuzu.pdf

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Cigdem Tongal

Cigdem Tongal

Helping organizations measure and narrate the impact/value of their work @ HMD. Interested in Value-based Impact Assessment I Storytelling I Art of Hosting

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