Theory of Change

Dorcas Omowole
4 min readJul 24, 2021

(Note: This reflection paper was written in the fourth quarter of 2017 as part of an Integral Human Development course)

The process of travelling can be used to illustrate the Theory of Change (ToC) and its applications. Just as the process of travelling has pre-travel, travel and post-travel phases, the ToC has three main phases; the process of drafting a ToC document, implementing the ToC with possibilities of revisions and evaluating how impactful the ToC has been in relation to our intended outcomes. The departure and destination locations represent one state of development which we are dissatisfied with and a desired state offering benefits of interest to us.

The pre-travel is a planning phase. There are decisions to be made to ensure that we get to our destination within the time and resources available to us. There are consultations, comparisons of merits and demerits of alternative routes and means of transportation which informs decision making prior to setting out. There are also landmarks and milestones to be identified to measure progress and ensure we stay on track. If external assistance or collaboration is required, those of whom this assistance is required are informed and any negotiations required to ensure the help is available when needed is made. These information from the pre-travel phase are compiled into a map, physical or mental, which serves as a repository of information and guidelines for the journey. This map in the field of development planning is a Theory of Change document. As rational beings working within resource constraints, being thorough at this stage helps ensure that we remain on course and no resources are spent wandering or getting into dead ends.

A map/travel plan has more value when it is drawn with inputs from research and awareness of available internal and external resources and conditions required for a successful journey. These “internal and external resources and conditions” in ToC parlance are referred to as Assumptions.(1) For example, a project focusing on women education would have as one of its assumptions that women are interested in being educated. Assumptions are very important because if they are incorrect it can completely change how your program works.1 A sound ToC also draws on a range of evidence such as previous similar projects and programs, previous research and evaluation, the mental models of stakeholders (including planners, managers and staff, partner organizations, and intended beneficiaries). (1)

During the travel phase, decisions made at pre-travel phase are subject to changes. Contextual or situational situations may necessitate a review of our map/ToC to accommodate these changes.(2) For example, unexpected torrential rail may mean taking the bus when riding a bike was initially planned for that portion of the journey. The ToC is flexible to modification necessary to advance a programs cause. Periodically and at the end of the journey, we consider where we are and compare it to where we planned to be at the planning phase to take learnings going forward or as inputs for other projects.

ToC is an offshoot from the field of program theory and evaluation. It emerged in the mid1990s as a new way of analyzing the theories motivating programs and initiatives working for social and political change.(2) Weiss popularized the term “Theory of Change” as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the mini-steps that lead to a long-term goal of interest and the connections between program activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way.(3) A ToC document offers a clearer picture of the intended result from an action, and explains how programme activities and results relate to each other and contribute to achieving results at different levels.(1)

ToC also serves various purposes; it could be utilized by an organization to validate its intervention efforts or it can be designed in response to donor demands.(2) Within an organization there may be an implementation ToC for a specific intervention as well as an organizational ToC to guide programming decisions.(2) ToC levels are also often interdependent. For example, a country-level ToC for a donor funded project has to fit under the overarching donor-level ToC. Similarly, an organization may wish to have coherent ToCs across their organization and particular programme and project goals. (2) Development organizations working in a particular area also harmonize their ToCs to maximize the impact of their interventions. (2)

NOTES

1. Stein. D., Craig Valters. C. Understanding Theory of Change in International Development. The Justice and Security Research Programme. Paper 1. August 2012.

2. Ober. H., Goldwyn. R., Paul-Andre Wilton, P., Phil Vernon. P. Peacebuilding with Impact: Defining Theories of Change. CARE International UK. January 2012.

3. Weiss, C.H. (1995). Nothing as Practical as Good Theory: Exploring Theory-Based Evaluation for Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Children and Families. In J. Connell, A. Kubisch, L. Schorr and C. Weiss (Eds.) New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives: Concepts, Methods and Contexts. New York, Aspen Institute (65–92)

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