Developing a Theory of Change – is there a ‘right’ way?

June 18, 2020 / Edited by Kaisha Crupi

Dr Jess Dart, Lauren Siegmann and Damien Sweeney share their approaches and personal experiences.

Considered by many change-makers as the ultimate ‘road map’ when it comes to creating social impact, a good Theory of Change is an integral part of any intervention or initiative aiming to affect change. In our recent webinar, we asked Clear Horizon experts from different fields about the approaches they use when creating a theory of change. While there was consensus on many aspects, there were some significant differences (and interesting discussions!) about others, which begged the question – is there a right way to develop a theory of change?

The long and short of it is – no! There’s no magic methodology or ‘one size fits all’ approach for creating a good theory of change. But before we get into some of our panellist’s differing approaches, let’s look at some broad areas of agreement:

No matter the context, get people on the same page

Whether you’re building a theory of change as part of a program design, for a MEL framework, or for an evaluation, you need to get as many stakeholders as possible in the room (physical or virtual) to come to a consensus on what the theory of change is. This way, you’ll not only have a common understanding that incorporates different worldviews, your theory of change will be fit-for-purpose for those using it to make decisions. According to our panellists, those involved in creating a theory of change need to be on the same page when it comes to:

  • What the theory of change was going to be used for
  • Who needs to be engaged to building of it
  • The specific issue or problem that the intervention is to address
  • How desired change can occur

Evidence can be useful – but collect and use with care

A solid theory of change should be based on solid evidence, right? Our panellists agree that evidence including scholarly research, data, case studies, community voice and expert input can certainly be useful in guiding your assumptions and approach. But, for it to be meaningful, you need to consider how and what evidence to use depending on the type and stage of your intervention.

If your intervention is just being created, it’s important to use what existing evidence is available, or even your best hunches to help develop the initial ‘cut’ of the theory of change and for it then to be developed iteratively as learning comes to light through discovery work with users and prototyping solutions. However, if an intervention is past the design stage, key assumptions that underpin the theory of change should be drawn out and tested to see if they hold true. In terms of assessing likeliness of holding true, scholarly evidence, previous evaluations and observations can help.

  • In terms of finding the ‘right’ evidence to help you determine what could work, our panellists recommend you look at:
  • Population-level data – for helping diagnose the social problem you’re aiming to overcome
  • Research data – for more about the nature of the problem
  • ‘Grey literature’ – for getting a sense what other programs have been doing
  • Talking to people and gathering their perspectives – this too can be a valuable form of evidence!

So now we’re clear on our commonalities, let’s explore some of the differences in our panellists’ approaches.

What’s your approach to developing a theory of change?

Lauren Siegmann

“I will always try to ensure that the beneficiary of the intervention is at the centre of the theory of change as it needs to ensure how the intervention will impact them. To do this, I try to:

    1. Understand the audience for the theory of change and how it is likely to impact the beneficiary.
    2. Gather information to build the theory of change. This can be through research, talking to people, or better yet, the person working on the theory of change being exposed to the program and getting direct experience of how it works.
    3. Document the theory of change to match the intended audience’s needs. I’ll usually deliver a theory of change in multiple forms, such as a table, a flowchart, a narrative, and even stories – whatever makes sense to the audience.”
Dr Jess Dart

“I like to use Theory of Change as a tool for gaining an overall understanding of how change is to occur, particularly for those who will use the theory of change to make decisions. So for me the steps are:

    1. Define the scope – find out what the theory of change is going to be used for: who needs to be engaged in building it.
    2. Map out the ‘what‘ – what would success look like in terms of the big picture, the ‘mission level’ outcomes.
    3. Map out the ‘how’ – map out the main preconditions that are needed to achieve these mission level outcomes, and step them out as causal pathways, including who needs to do what differently.”
Damien Sweeney

“When developing a theory of change, I like to get an understanding upfront from all stakeholders of what the problem or issue is they are trying to solve, and then come to a consensus on how best to solve it. This involves:

    1. Defining the issue or problem. Different people can see issues differently, and finding a common problem to rally around is important step for buy-in by all stakeholders. Undertaking a problem analysis, in a participatory manner, is helpful in identifying the causes, whether real or perceived, and here you can start adding in evidence.
    2. Flipping the problem and causes identified into a positive mindset, which becomes a solution tree, and in effect, this can become your ‘global’ theory of change.

If you define a theory of change more like a program logic, it is taking the solution tree or global theory of change, identifying where you want to intervene, and then looking at how you bring change.”

How do you bring about consensus?

Dr Jess Dart

“I have a lot of different strategies up my sleeve! Getting consensus on the ‘big stuff’ is the hardest – about how different people understand how change occurs. One method I apply is getting individuals to map out their own theory of change, share their differences, then apply ‘dotmotcracy’ – an activity where participants get a sticky dot which they can use to vote for part of a model, or a whole model. This technique helps demonstrate what model or combination of models best works for a group.

Lauren Siegmann

“I believe that an evaluator’s role in developing a theory of change is to be an intermediary of multiple perspectives. Navigating multiple perspectives and then to ensuring that the final product reflects all of these requires a high level of emotional intelligence. It’s important to be aware of power relations, and how this can impact whose opinion is represented in the group’s theory of change. Because of this, I try to privilege the beneficiary in the development of a theory of change, especially when negotiating differences in opinions. They are the ones for whom the theory should be designed, so it’s their perspective that matters most.”

Damien Sweeney

“Getting clarity on terms and definitions upfront is the most important thing to bring about consensus in developing a theory of change. It’s important to get clarity on what people mean by theory of change from the get-go. And then, to get clarity on the issue or problem, which extends to understanding and agreeing on feasible outcome(s) for the timeframe and budget available. I believe the role of the MEL person in this context of ‘critical friend’ – to ask questions and try to poke holes, question assumptions and clarify understanding to ensure that the theory of change developed is as robust as it can be.”

And lastly, how do you know when you’ve created a good theory of change?

Luckily, our panellists were in agreement in terms of what makes a good theory of change. According to them, you know you’re on a winner when:

  • There is a clear line of sight of how change happens between the intervention and the final mission outcomes
  • It includes some short- and medium-term outcomes that will help you understand whether you are on track before the end of your funding envelope
  • It is understood by a broad range of stakeholders and they agree with its plausibility
  • The key assumptions are clearly articulated
  • It is worded simply enough to create a clear narrative
  • The people who made it love it (and use it often!)

A theory of change is a valuable tool for creating consensus and rallying a team around a targeted approach. But it’s not something to be shelved once you’re happy with it. To get the most out of yours, our experts recommend you revisit it often, checking that your intervention is on track and if not, correcting your theory of change to accurately capture how impact is occurring.

For more information on theory of change, or for a deep-dive into Measurement, Evaluation and Learning (MEL), please check out our online MEL course.