Theories of Change

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 4, 2016

I have been wanting to blog more, but have been having trouble finding as many “transportable” ideas to share publicly, now that my work is more focused on broader, institutional change.  But one thing that I have been working a lot with, which is becoming more broadly recognized as useful in educational projects, are Theories of Change.

A Theory of Change, broadly speaking, is a diagram or description that uncovers the (often unspoken) rationale of how a program works.  A cartoon you may be familiar with is an excellent depiction of what a Theory of Change is intended to do: (Thanks to for the idea)

Credit Sidney Harris Credit Sidney Harris

If you are familiar with a logic model (which usually outlines Activities, Outputs and Outcomes, and other similar aspects of a project), a Theory of Change is somewhat similar — except that it provides the detailed description of how each input and action is intended to lead to each outcome, and the assumptions underlying those connections.  Thus, a Theory of Change is more complex than a logic model.

Why a Theory of Change?  From the words of Mark Connolly and Elaine Seymour:

Theories of change matter because they are usually implicit, and what remains unseen cannot be questioned.

A crucial factor in designing successful reform efforts is making programmatic theories of change explicit. (Developing a Theory of Change) can expose predictive assumptions that do not hold up for various reasons. Among the most common pitfalls are not basing implied or stated theories of change in reality or evidence, failing to consider plausible alternate explanations, relying on limited perspectives, and basing them exclusively on strong affective commitments.

Below is an example Theory of Change from Project SuperWomen, which helps domestic violence survivors to be self-sufficient through marketable skills training:

The circles identify the inherent assumptions at those steps.  For example, Assumption D is that “women can learn non-traditional skills and compete in the marketplace.”  If that assumption is false, then all that training won’t lead to the hoped-for outcome.  A more detailed Theory of Change will then place the interventions along these lines, such as the fact that in order for women to serve in internships, the program matched women with internship opportunities.  I have used this Project Superwomen example a lot when developing a detailed Theory of Change for a client — you can read more about the Project Superwomen Theory of Change at this detailed presentation.

The great thing once you have a Theory of Change is that you can:

  • Have a framework for understanding successes and failures (is some outcome not happening?  Is an assumption incorrect?)
  • Develop a robust assessment plan that measures what you really care about
  • Be more likely to get funded! (Funders like Theories of Change)

More resources:

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