What I’ve Learned About Theory of Change

I was inspired to write this after reading Lucy Chambers excellent post proposing how a dystopian theory of change might be helpful in creating long term strategies. In it, Lucy points to a DIY theory of change template that simplifies the process of developing a theory of change plan and points out that she has “seen so many organisations be overwhelmed by having to produce a full theory of change straight off.” But this got me thinking: who should have a theory of change and when should they have it?

Are we seeing peak ‘theory of change’?

One problem I see is that theory of change has suddenly become quite trendy. I’ve been in several conversations/meetings where the term ‘theory of change’ has been thrown about in a very assumptive manner. Everyone seems to think they should have one, regardless of where they are in an organisation and what they are working on. A few years ago, theory of change was absolutely unheard of. I’ve now heard its use interchanged with several other important terms including: strategy, vision of success, impact statement, etc. I’d like to look at these models and suggest concrete ways they are useful.

What is ‘theory of change’?

I think we need to be clear about what a theory of change actually is. When I get caught up on definitions I like to consult Wikipedia, and the following is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_change

  • “Theory of Change” is a specific type of methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used … to promote social change. Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions… Further, the process is necessarily inclusive of many perspectives and participants in achieving solutions.

And let’s not be mistaken, ‘theory of change’ is a new term for practices that people working on social change have been doing for a very long time. A colleague who is a veteran of decades of organisational development described the concept as ‘old wine in a new bottle‘. But the truth is that the methodology, regardless of what it’s called, is incredibly helpful. I find this particularly when working with NGO’s that have applied a lot of effort on attaining data and tech tools before they have focused on end-users and the ultimate impact they are trying to make.

How is it helpful?

Fair Play Alliance's Epitaph

Fair Play Alliance’s Epitaph

For me, it’s a plan that will get you to the point where you cease to exist, become obsolete – and that’s a good thing for NGOs! In order to create the plan you engage a range of stakeholders in getting input on how you will get there. So the defining aspect of the ‘Theory of Change’, and where it’s true value lies, is that it’s created with, and is ultimately for, people external to your organisation. It’s a way of building shared ownership in your work and solidarity with the people with whom you will partner to achieve the change. It’s a public facing document that will allow stakeholders to understand and participate in creating the change you are seeking.

Start with a vision

The starting point for many organisations in developing a theory of change is creating a ‘vision of success’, what the world will look like if you achieved the change you were seeking. One way of doing this is getting organisations to create an epitaph on a gravestone, to mark what they would be remembered for if they ceased to exist because the desired change happend. I was first introduced to this exercise by Keystone Accountability and have used it several times since.

Fair Play Alliance's Vision of Success with Preconditions

Fair Play Alliance’s Vision of Success with Preconditions

From the vision of success you work backwards to identify all those necessary preconditions to make it happen. This then gives you a clearer picture of the people and resources you will need to engage in order to make it happen. The hard work of the ‘Theory of Change’ comes from working with those stakeholders in creating the plan. The scope of time that the theory of change covers should be quite long and can be decades or even generations.

How do strategy and impact fit in?

You derive your organisational strategy from your theory of change. While the theory of change is very much a public facing document, the organisational strategy is an internal one, developed by the staff with input from the board, and covering a manageable bit of time, say three to five years. It contains the specific tasks you need to undertake in your theory of change, and contains things like a timeline with milestones and budgets. Depending on the scope of your strategy, you may need to articulate the life of discreet elements within the organisational strategy (e.g. your tech or data strategies). The strategy will reference specific projects that need to be undertaken and how they will help the organisation make an impact towards achieving the theory of change. Each project will have it’s own plan for implementation.
The questions I think people should be able to answer before they start planning and implement projects that centre on technology and data are:

  • What is the impact we seek to make with this?
  • Who are the users and how will this bring value to them?
  • How will this contribute to the larger strategy?

If it’s a data project or a tech project that is part of an advocacy strategy, you particularly want to have a vision for how it will impact your targets (the people who have the power to make the change).

So who needs a theory of change?

Clearly not everybody – but certainly organisations and even coalitions and networks of organisations, particularly those that are trying to impact the big picture (movements, etc). Occasionally I have found programs within larger organisations that have developed their own theories of change. To me this is quite worthwhile if they are not neatly fitting into the organisation’s strategy OR if the higher ups in the organisation are resistant to developing a theory of change (yes, it happens!).

Not every organisation will have the capacity to undergo an extensive and involved process like a theory of change, particularly when they are first starting out. An organisation’s need for a theory of change is probably directly related to its ability to question its own effectiveness.

FabRiders does not have a theory of change. We operate under a set of values and principles and work to make organisations stronger and more effective. We support organisations in implementing tech projects, and sometimes that means advising them that a theory of change would be helpful and how they can get it.


In short, if you are trying to impact social change and are working for rights and justice, you need a ‘theory of change’. This, in turn, will lead you to engage your stakeholders in developing the plan, assuring them that you are sharing ownership and being inclusive in your drive for change. If your work is shorter term and you are just trying to impact a more select group of people, you just need an impact statement that can be created relatively quickly.


I owe a huge amount of gratitude to Lucy Chambers, not just for inspiring me to write this, but also for the time and skill she contributed to reviewing this blog post. Also big thanks to Ric Mallamo for his proofing, copy-editing and reality testing skills. And also, the good folks at Fair Play Alliance, for letting me use pictures from our work together.


Understanding and creating a theory of change:
Creating strategies and project planning: