10 Great Resources for Creating a Theory of Change

What is a Theory of Change? According to ActKnowledge, a Theory of Change defines all the building blocks required to bring about a long-term goal. ‘Like any good planning and evaluation method for social change, it requires participants to be clear on long-term goals, identify measurable indicators of success, and formulate actions to achieve goals.’

Many people use it interchangeably with the term “logic model” but it differs from logic models  because it requires stakeholders to articulate underlying assumptions which can be tested and measured, and because shows a causal pathway from here to there by specifying what is needed for goals to be achieved.

According to Jim Connell and Adema Klem you should ask yourself whether your Theory of Change is:

  1. Plausible (stakeholders believe the logic of the model is correct: if we do these things, we will get the results we want and expect);
  2. Doable (human, political and economic resources are seen as sufficient to implement the action strategies in the theory);
  3. Testable (stakeholders believe there are credible ways to discover whether the results are as predicted);
  4. Meaningful (stakeholders see the outcomes as important and the magnitude of change in these outcomes being pursued as worth the effort).

My consulting firm has been helping foundations to develop theories of change for entire organizations, program areas, and initiatives. We’ve reviewed the literature about Theories of Change and wanted to share our top 10 resources with you, to help you with your social change planning:

For general information about what a Theory of Change is and some examples:

  1. Theory of Change As A Tool For Strategic Planning introduces the use of the Theory of Change approach for planning community-based initiatives using examples from the The Wallace Foundation Parents and Communities for Kids (PACK) initiative.
  2. Theory of Change.org is a collaborative project of the Aspen Institute and ActKnowledge, offering a wide array of resources, tools, tips, and examples of Theory of Change.
  3. ActKnowledge is currently piloting Theory of Change Online (TOCO), a free, web-based application to create Theories of Change and to learn more about the methodology.
  4. They’ve also provided a guided example of how one Theory of Change was developed.
  5. You Can Get There From Here: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Plan Urban Education Reform” by James Connell and Adema Klem gives an overview and an example in the field of education.

For useful manuals, facilitators’ guides, and tools to create a Theory of Change:

  1. The International Network on Strategic Philanthropy has a Theory of Change Tool Manual.
  2. Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results and Learning” was created under the guidance of Tom Kelly (@tomkaecf) at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  3. The Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change created “The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change,” which is a practical guide for facilitators, including what to do before and during meetings with stakeholders, suggested participants, and recommended materials.

And to better understand the difference between a Theory of Change and a Logic Model check out:

  1. GrantCraft created “Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Guide Planning.” (BTW, GrantCraft has produced terrific guides on all aspects of grantmaking, so you should definitely check them out)
  2. Theories of Change and Logic Models: Telling Them Apart” is a helpful PowerPoint presentation.

If you recommend other resources, or have examples of nonprofit or foundation Theories of Change that you would like to share, please leave a comment!

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me at @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

17 responses to “10 Great Resources for Creating a Theory of Change

  1. Thanks for gathering all the resources. They are great! I wonder if you know any resources that critique the assumptions of theories of change for NGOs in international development? Thanks!

    • Hi Ethan, glad you find the blog helpful. No, unfortunately I’m not aware of any such resources. Do you mean that critique assumptions about specific TOCs, or that critique the use of TOCs as a tool (more generally) in international grantmaking?

      • unrealistic assumptions that development projects/NGOs make when they draw their TOCs, or logic models?

  2. I would like to thank you for this great work, which will definitely help me in my master degree thesis.

  3. You might find the following blog i posted a while back useful on Research to Action. Like this blog its a resources list for to help guide people putting together a theory of change: http://www.researchtoaction.org/theory-of-change-useful-resources/

  4. Dr. Muyi Arowosafe

    I am very impress with your your definitions and framework of Therory of Change. I will like to be part of your group in any way that I can learn and also contribute.

  5. Nyika Simbarashe

    This is great and it has helped a lot of people in proposal writting. Some didn’t know what a theory of change is and how to use the logical model

  6. Another fantastic resource, if you want to incorporate individual behavior change theory into your overall theory of change is the National Cancer Institute’s Theory at a Glance:

  7. The 1st thing to remember is that the only person who loves change is a baby with a wet nappy.

    Just thought I would share 2 quotes with you:

    “Imagine an organisation full of people who come to work enthusiastically, knowing that they will grow and flourish, and intent on fulfilling the visions and goals of the larger organization. There’s ease, grace, and effortless about the way they get things done. People take pleasure and pride in every aspect of the enterprise – for example in the way they can talk openly, reflect on other’s opinions, and have genuine influence on the structures around them. That’s a lot of energy walking in each day, accomplishing an ever-increasing amount of work and having fun along the way.” (Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook)

    Is that scenario energizing you or frightening you?

    Or is it as Marilyn Ferguson, Author & Futurist said:

    “ It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…..It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

    • Thanks Deon – interesting quotes that you shared. I find the Peter Senge quote very energizing. The second one reminds me of one of my favorite books, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron – a Buddhist perspective on how to respond when the rug gets pulled out from underneath you.

  8. Wow! This is just the article I was waiting for! Thank you so much.

    As an old hunter and gatherer for change models and theories, I got more and more uncomfortable with what is out there. Not because I don’t like change models and theories but because as a practitioner I found that they don’t always bite.

    Let’s face it:

    We are living in a world that is ruled by laws of complexity and dominated by an ever increasing degree of uncertainty. However, projects are still managed from a reductionist and mechanistic viewpoint. So far, there have only few simple and applicable models that help organizations to look at their change projects from a complexity viewpoint.

    That’s not a model, and even less so a theory. I am more interested in a meta model that helps people to find their own theory of change. For that, we have developed the Change Journey (http://www.changejourney.org).

    The Change Journey is a radical approach to change. It is based on the paradigm that change in organizations is not a linear path from A to B. We offer a tool for developing a specific change model: The Change Journey Map. The Map is inclusive – which means whatever tools and models and theory you are used to can be incorporated.

    These are the principles of the journey:

    1. Change has its borders: Change is partly given to us.
    2. The journey will teach us: Problems become our friends.
    3. Widen the circle of involvement as much as possible and necessary.
    4. Connect people to the content of the change and to each other.
    5. Identify or create containers where new thinking can happen.
    6. People do not resist change : All people have concerns, purposes and circumstances.

    Here is a slideshow (and a bit of theory…):

    Does it help?

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