Why A Theory of Change?

A Theory of Change may seem a difficult or academic task to work through, but could be one of your most valuable documents as an agent wanting to bring about change in whichever sphere or community you exist. It is a framework for understanding how the “why” of your organisation works with the “what” and the “how”.  It is a simple, clear means of communicating why your organisation exists in a clear and concise form.
This fantastic tool assists those on the ground to see the bigger picture of their actions and how it affects change.  Equally, it is a means for board members to evaluate the merit of a new programme, or communicate to external parties why they are backing your organisation.
On the other hand, when donors or companies and organisations are looking to see if they want to partner with each other, if both have a theory of change document, it will be clear whether there is a synergy between the two parties or not.
The framework I use is a mind-map starting at either the left or top of a page and flowing across or down:
  1. Long-term goal (make sure it is written in the positive and it is a goal, not an action!) – This is the ultimate “why” of your organisation.

  2. Specific change areas – what are the specific things that need to change in order for that goal to become a reality?

  3. Tangible steps to reaching those specific change areas – what are the things your organisation/company doing to impact on those “specific change areas”?

  4. Draw lines linking those tangible steps to the relevant specific change areas.

  5. Flesh out your tangible steps down to the base actions you do, this may be multiple steps.

  6. Write down the pre-existing conditions that inform your actions.

  7. Connect your actions and pre-existing conditions to each other (It may look like spaghetti!)

  8. Look at your own assumptions – this is a difficult step, but do not leave it out as you may realise you are missing a piece of the puzzle. Assumptions, by their nature, tend to be subconscious and may take some digging to reach.

  9. Indicators (what are the visual measures for your achievement?)  This is where you get to make commitments to change.
    a. Whom are we changing? Who are our beneficiaries? What is our target audience?b. How many “whos” will succeed if they are in your system?
    c. How many “whos” changed will be considered a success?  What is the tipping point?
    d. By when?
  10. Remember to look back on your diagram – some of the actions need to be intentional, and some outcomes will happen organically.  You can go back and colour-code your lines to make sure you are focusing on where your energy needs to be spent.
A Theory of Change is an organic document.  There will be things added over time and actions removed.  It is worth revisiting a number of times a year – as often as you need to revise your staff and board!  This tool can really save you much time and energy and keep you on track with what your organisation exists for!
Linda Morrison is the Managing Director of We Are Durban, which exists to aid charities in the eThekwini area to reach their potential. They aim at a developmental approach instead of a “relief” type approach.