9 Tips On Creating A Great Theory Of Change

Jul 28, 2020 | by Aliyyaa

How to create a theory of change?

Whether you are working in an NGO, community, or organization the Theory of Change is the foundation for any mission-driven initiative.

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Sometimes referred to as ToC, the Theory of Change documents the impact that you’re seeking to achieve, as well as all the intermediate steps to make sure that your activities and resources are well aligned with said change. The ToC should be defined before starting any new initiative or project and needs to be revised periodically, as your initiative evolves.  

Read our article on the Theory of Change to know more about it. 

And for you who want to learn more about it in a more practical way, we will also be having a series of webinars about it soon, so, we will keep you updated through our social media, stay tuned!

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We truly understand that creating a ToC from scratch can be quite confusing, and especially if it’s your first time. It is a relatively new concept with many different elements to it. Also most importantly, it is one thing to learn & understand something in theory but actually applying it in real-life projects is a different ball game altogether. Each project in real life has so many different aspects to it, and it is never very simple. Along with different aspects, there might be different goals or different ways to reach the same goal or different stakeholders wanting different things. When working in real life, there are many things you need to take care of and it requires some amount of practice & learning. As did we! And we want to share our learnings with you, so you don’t face the same issues as us.

Here’s how you can create a Theory of Change.

1. First and foremost, make sure everyone is on the same page!

One of the most important things is for everybody who is involved in your project to understand what the Theory of Change is and what words to use and what they mean. Otherwise, misunderstandings can occur easily, because there are so many names for similar or the same things based on which framework you are thinking of using and which definition you are using. It is really important for each member of your team to have a thorough understanding of the definition of ToC elements, especially regarding what are inputs, activities, output, outcome, and impact before going on to make ToC. 

For example, when we first started using the ToC, we spent a lot of time in realigning our understanding of what outputs are, why it is necessary to measure them, why outcomes need to be presented as part of a chain, etc.

Our tip is to: Define the terms or set the same meaning of terms across the board, by making an internal glossary. Make sure everyone in your team has this glossary at all times to refer to when needed. 

2. Try to plan out the process beforehand!

Here are some tips to consider before you start developing your Theory of Change: 

  1. It is very crucial to understand your organization’s needs, whether you need a simple change model or a more detailed, complex one. 
  2. Decide with your team how much time can your organization commit to this process and understand exactly the resources you have!
  3. Discuss the work distribution, which individual or team in your organization will do what work, and whether or not you will need an external consultant. A consultant who runs a Theory of Change development workshop can be beneficial, as it allows all your staff to participate (rather than facilitating) and it can also bring a helpful external perspective. 
  4. How you will involve stakeholders? Your internal team, volunteers, beneficiaries, and partners can all offer useful perspectives. The participation of a diverse stakeholder community will improve cross-group awareness. However, it may be difficult to manage a workshop with all stakeholders so maybe it would be best to talk to each group separately & then compile this information and present it to them.

3. Be humble!

We know it sounds preachy, but it’s a mistake we all tend to make. We often don’t listen to the voice of our main stakeholders, also traditionally known as the ‘beneficiaries’. Do not underestimate your receivers as people who are just going receive, but they can also play a very important role in designing your project. You need to be flexible, in terms of concepts and approaches,  if you decide to include people in the process, this will require compromise, flexibility, and encouraging them to form the idea the way they best see fit, not the way you believe it should be. 

4. Next, conduct a proper needs assessment 

After you make sure that everyone’s on the same page, now try doing a need assessment before doing your project, it will help so much not only to understand the kind of project you have to do to really help your target stakeholders but also in increasing the impact your project would give.  

Example from our Experience: When an activity didn’t do a proper needs assessment before the project, then via designing the ToC, the team members realized that the outcome was not as impactful as initially thought, and a proper needs assessment would have been able to help make the project more impactful. 

5. Now, try to define your intended impact

After your planning is done, discuss with your team the intended impact. The key problem you tackle in your project should be reflected in its solution – this is your intended impact. Your impact is the baseline for your ToC, the goal to which it’s all directed. Your impact should precisely define the specific or long-term change that you expect to see. In this phase, the group discusses, accepts, and is specific about the desirable impact. It is important that all the members agree on a good, clear goal/impact. You may have more than one goal/impact, but I’m suggesting no more than three. 

An example of a desirable impact is : “To reduce food crises in the local area”

6. Interrogate your Theory of Change

You need to define gaps and key assumptions about inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impacts of your ToC. When planning interventions or strategies, these assumptions can highlight where you need to adjust your activity in order to have a better chance of achieving the desired impact.

7. Describe any limitations of your theory

Next is to understand your limitations! Limitations could be factors outside your control and could be guidelines that you have defined on how your organization works. 

8. Don’t overestimate your program

If you are done with your overall planning, know that you might also bring some negative unintended impact. Understand Again first start with what are 5 dimensions of impact. In 2017, IMP brought together over 2000 organizations to define the 5 dimensions of impact – WHO, WHAT, HOW MUCH, CONTRIBUTION, and RISK. Enterprises, investors, and fund managers are beginning to apply the dimensions to better understand their impacts, as well as portfolio and individual investment performance.

  • WHO experiences the effect and were they previously underserved in relation to the outcome?
  • WHAT outcome, positive or negative, does the effect drive? Is that outcome important to the people experiencing the effect, or to the planet?
  • How much of the effect occurs? Does the effect occur for many people and/or does it drive the outcome deeply? Does it last for a long time?
  • Contribution: How does the effect compare and contribute to what the market would likely do anyway?
  • Risk: Which risk factors are material and how likely is the outcome different from the expectation?

It can give you guidance when you are creating ToC, there’s part of ‘What’ there and part of ‘Risk’ that helps you think about the risks that might happen and bring u to start thinking about mitigating it start from the beginning when you are creating your ToC

9. Do a survey!

After knowing your impact, Your survey is not just for output! You need to survey your outcome also, that’s why you need to define first what’s your output and outcome, then define the metrics/indicators, then get data points you need to answer from stakeholders. 

On top of this, also need to understand: 

  1. The method to collect those data (who is the data collector, who is the data provider, when is the data being collected, how, and frequency of data collection) 
  2. How your data can show that the project has successfully achieved the outcome

Example from our Experience: After we make a 2×2 matrix which details who collects what and how they will collect it, it is very easy for us to integrate it in our SOPs, as well as in briefing the volunteers what they have to do to collect the data. 

how to create theory of change - impact management platform

Once these challenges have been overcome, the second even greater challenge in trying to put the Theory of Change into reality is operations. How to bring the constraints of what is possible with what you want to achieve or have laid out in theory. You might get stressed along the way, and don’t know whether you are doing it right or not, it’s totally fine! It’s very common to happen, especially if it’s your first time. So, I advise you not to ‘over-complicate your ToC. Take one step at a time and prioritize what actually matters, you may want to include every possible change, every aspect of the broader socio-economic context, 50 assumptions, and 100 indicators for the ToC, but this is not necessary. Nor should you get carried away with the fancy design elements. If you still feel confused just take a look for a benchmark, there’s apparently a lot of resources out there that you can get more info or inspiration from. We already have some blogs about it and will be adding more such blogs and podcasts & even webinars soon, which would be more practical.

If there is any particular element of the Theory of Change that you would like to learn about feel free to contact us. We would love to hear more from you that what you think about the Theory of Change, what are some things you struggle with most, and how do you guys want to use it. So feel free to get in touch with us via email (contact@artemis.im) or through our website www.artemis.im. If you are still not sure how to create your theory of change, then join us for one of our monthly training, get in touch via email to register a spot for yourself. 


Also, check our articles about Impact Measurement & Management to know more. 

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