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How To Develop and Apply The Theory of Change (ToC) To Your Impact Project?

Sep 30, 2020 | by Aliyyaa

Theory of Change (ToC) exhibits the intricate link between inputs, outputs and outcomes. We briefly touched upon the concept Theory of Change (ToC) while explaining the various stages involved in the calculation of SROI. Simply put, it serves a dual purpose;

  • It acts as a planning tool for your projects/interventions and you can decide how you would reach the desired goal.

Why should your organization use the Theory of Change (ToC)?

You can learn more about Theory of Change (ToC) in detail from some of our blogs. For those who are already familiar with the concept and want an understanding of how ToC can be applied to an impact project, this blog will provide an in-depth understanding on the same.

Towards the beginning, the application of ToC can seem a bit confusing, this blog aims to break down and simplify the various processes involved so that you can apply the ToC methodology successfully to your project.

Always remember, it is important to include all stakeholders and parties involved in the project for this exercise. ToC needs to be developed during the planning stage and can also prove useful for monitoring and evaluation..

Theory of Change can help in a range of ways – it can help in identifying key indicators for monitoring, spotting loopholes and gaps in existing data, aid data collection, and provide a structure for data analysis and reporting.

Theory of Change can help in a range of ways - it can help in identifying key indicators for monitoring, spotting loopholes and gaps in existing data, aid data collection, and provide a structure for data analysis and reporting. Click To Tweet

For those who are developing a new ToC, or are reviewing an existing one, ensure that the following processes are included.

Involving stakeholders and relevant parties is of the utmost importance. Try and understand what they make of the interventions and how they think the activity will bring about the intended change. The exercise not just calls for the involvement of stakeholders but also those behind designing the project, those currently working on it, and others involved. Make sure that the designing of ToC and its implementation is done most collaboratively, ensuring participation of all those relevant to the initiative. Your stakeholders must understand what ToC stands for and how, practically speaking, it relates to them and the intended impact.

Now let’s get started with the process of developing ToC and its application to an impact project.

Long-term goal

The first step is to identify a long term goal. It is imperative to have in mind what goal your impact project sets out to achieve. There can be more than one goal, of course. The idea is to have all parties come to a consensus concerning having clear, long-term outcome(s). Remember, the ToC depends on this goal..

For example, an NGO may decide on achieving the long term goal of securing employment opportunities for acid attack victims..

Setting preconditions (outcomes)

Now you would want to try and analyze what preconditions (outcomes) need to exist to achieve the goal(s) agreed upon. For example, the NGO concluded that acid attack victims need to have an understanding of computer operations, basic marketing skills, and the ability to cope and adapt to workplace dynamics to secure employment.

Backward mapping

You will now undertake the task of backward-mapping, which means you will identify all possible pathways (outcomes pathway) that would lead to the ultimate goal(s). This pathway outlines the flow between shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes. All these are connected by links.

The intermediate outcomes are the link between long-term and short-term outcomes. Think about how each intermediate outcome links to your activities..

Tip: It is important to think about factors, internal and external, that need to exist for the ‘Theory of Change’. Some would be within, such as factors linked to your staff, ties with stakeholders, quality of services, et cetera,. Others will mostly depend on the external environment and often beyond your immediate control – this would include socio-economic, political factors, laws and regulations, and situations when you are working and engaging with other parties..

Assumptions and justifications

You will also need to justify and provide assumptions behind the preconditions set by you. The process of backward mapping and connecting the outcomes with assumptions and justifications will continue till you arrive at a framework showcasing the entire picture.

For example, the precondition for acid attack victims to have an understanding of computer operations was backed by the assumption that the knowledge of basic computer skills will help them secure an entry-level job at any data entry facility or for administrative openings. It can boost their chances of upward mobility onto the career path as they can undertake courses and training to enhance their skills and get better employment opportunities later on..

Coping skills would be required so that the victims can adapt to workplace dynamics. It becomes important for people who have been subjected to abuse or have gone through emotional trauma to get emotionally ready to take on the world outside….

Tip: Not all outcomes carry equal weight, some will be more critical than the others. For example, a change in the attitude of employers towards hiring acid attack victims will hold more weight towards achieving the long term goal of their employment as opposed to an outcome of the victims attending a counseling session. Some other outcomes may be easier to achieve than others..

Activities, interventions and indicators

Now that a map has been created clearly defining the link between the outcomes and preconditions, the next step is to focus on interventions or activities the organization plans to undertake to arrive at the desired impact. In the above-mentioned example, the NGO decides to conduct a campaign, provide training, workshops, internships and counseling sessions for the victims along with a separate workshop for prospective employers, among other interventions. These interventions or activities will fall across various stages during the project..

For example, one of the first interventions would be to launch a campaign to reach out to the acid attack victims, educate them about the project and get them to enroll in the program. Similarly, internship opportunities will be provided to the candidates at a much later stage of the project.

Each outcome and precondition will need an indicator. This will help in assessing the effectiveness of the initiative. How do we know whether an outcome has occurred and how effective has it been? An indicator is the answer to that. You can learn in detail about developing indicators in our other blogs, especially those focusing on SROI analysis and calculation.

Tip: If you have prepared a map or a visual representation of your ToC then it is advisable to document it. This is known as creating a narrative or description of the entire program. Here, you must document the story of your project, right from the background of the organization, the goals, and how the project plans to achieve the desired outcomes. Outcomes, preconditions, assumptions and justifications, interventions, indicators – all these will form part of the narrative.

Summing up

Remember, there will be a lot of back and forth with respect to the formulation of your ToC. It may take many more rounds of sessions, consultations with stakeholders and other parties before the finality could be reached. All should be in consensus. You need to evaluate and assess whether the ToC will lead to desired results.

Tip: The ToC should be designed in a way to factor in broader social and economic factors and risks to desired outcomes. It should be easy to test or evaluate. You must also see how feasible it will be to implement the interventions given the resources available at hand. Keep your ToC simple, robust, uncomplicated, and comprehensive and don’t forget to review it periodically. 

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