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Read the latest expert insights, trends, and best practices around impact measurement and leveraging actionable data to drive meaningful change.

Are you in search of procedures to aid in the organization of project components? Almost any logic model will show how you can present your project in terms of resources, activities, and short and long-term outcomes. These are essential tools that may aid in the clarification of goals and communicate the fundamentals of how an initiative operates to others.


Theory of Change takes these techniques a step further by requiring additional precision regarding goals and the circumstances you must meet to achieve them. As a result, it’s time-consuming yet produces a more helpful guide for your job than most other methods. Here are some of the advantages of learning how to create a Theory of Change.


What is the Theory of Change (TOC)?

A Theory of Change defines a process of planned societal change, from the assumptions that drive its design to the long-term goals it attempts to attain. Impact organizations that have developed a change theory do so to make it easier for them to find logical linkages between actions and outcomes. A Theory of Change framework aids them in articulating what premises and assumptions their work tests precisely — and what they should evaluate in their assessment strategy.


Impact investors and nonprofits can create a Theory of Change model before starting a project (to aid strategic planning), or foundations can use it to explain an existing project (so you can evaluate it). It’s instrumental when planning or assessing a complicated endeavor, but you may also use it for more straightforward initiatives. 


When developing a Theory of Change template, it’s beneficial to engage a range of stakeholders, such as employees, trustees, beneficiaries, partners, and funders. The thought engaged in the development process is sometimes just as essential as the graphic or story you generate.


Why Should You Use the Theory of Change Model? 

A Theory of Change is an excellent way for foundations, impact investors, and nonprofits to foster accountability and transparency. When used for assessment, it can assist both grantmakers and grantees in determining if their effort is achieving the desired results. Grantmakers frequently use a Theory of Change to help themselves and their grantees comprehend change, manage change, and measure the effectiveness their theory of impact had on their work.


Theory of Change first appeared in the early 1990s, primarily concerning foundation-funded comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs). Grantmakers have recognized the usefulness of employing theories of change in various initiatives. They can be useful in circumstances where the ultimate goal is difficult to define or measure. An outcome theory helps grantees and program officers create realistic action plans, and:

  • Identify resources
  • Assess their suitability
  • Make assessments more meaningful
  • Find outside financial and non-financial resources that need to be tapped

The Five Theory of Change Components

Five primary components comprise a Theory of Change model:




The resources or investments required to guarantee that the activities take place are referred to as inputs. An example of inputs for an educational organization includes quality course materials, trained teachers, volunteer hours, and investment. 




Activities are the steps needed to be taken to achieve desirable outcomes. Following the same educational organization example above, an activity might involve training teachers or classroom teaching. 




Outputs are the results of concerted efforts of the inputs and activities, which are required to achieve the objectives. One output from an educational organization’s initiative might be an average student test scores and percentage of teachers trained. 




The culmination of intended and unexpected changes that your stakeholders are experiencing or may experience resulting from your action are outcomes. Long-term, mid-term, and short-term outcomes should all be included in a well-designed Theory of Change. You're more likely to attract other parties to assist you in achieving your goal if you show a demonstrable improvement in your outcomes. A stakeholder survey including baseline, mid-line, and exit line results is required for accurate outcome measurement. Continuing our educational organization example, improved student learning indicated by test scores would be an outcome. 




The impact is the long-term systemic change that you anticipate observing. Impact takes a few years to manifest, making it difficult to evaluate, but it provides a solid framework for defining the outcomes you can affect and measure. An example of an impact could be the number of students demonstrating improvement in test scores. 


How to Use the TOC Framework

Once you’ve identified a problem, it’s time to convene the primary components to address the issue. The process of applying a Theory of Change framework goes as follows:




First, determine who will benefit from your efforts. The stakeholders include every natural and legal person that will be involved in, and typically benefit from, the initiative. To secure some stakeholders, you’ll need to answer why you believe your program is necessary and how it will be beneficial to your stakeholders. Make sure you do your homework. This is where you must also rely on existing evidence or ask your community to identify the gaps that your program will fill through stakeholder feedback.


Program Objectives


What are you hoping to achieve as a result of the project? Are you attempting to:

  • Reduce poverty levels in a particular area?
  • Target a specific demographic to provide an equal playing field?
  • Lower the unemployment rate in communities while improving other life skills?

 A good change theory doesn’t just mirror what a company is currently doing. Instead, it expresses the organization's desire to be held accountable. As a result, make your objective explicit and establish a deadline for yourself.




When do you think you'll get the outcome you want? When formulating your Theory of Change template, you’ll need to define the duration of your program or project and when you’ll be able to view the results. When establishing a timeframe, it can be dependent on the length of the program. Many elements are recognized, for the skill development program reference earlier that would include resume writing, interview preparation, aligned hiring firms, talents that fit industry needs, and no other social or cultural restrictions. Plan to gather and evaluate data year after year to assess how far you've come.


Activities and Input


What are your plans for achieving and demonstrating your goals? Describe the actions and resources you'll devote to addressing the issue and making a difference. For instance, if you’re attempting to reduce the unemployment rate of a neighborhood, you may have to focus on identifying students and their talents, teaching skills, teacher training, engaging hiring firms, and so on. Regardless of what your desired outcomes are, you’ll need to illustrate the essential steps you'll take as part of your impact plan.


Limitation, Risk, and Context


Where will you perform your work, and under what conditions will you accomplish it? Your Theory of Change model will need to account for any theoretical constraints. Consider your limitations, such as economic hardship, poor hiring by local businesses, or any number of potential variables that you may encounter. There may be circumstances beyond your control. Consider the dangers and constraints that you will face in attaining your objectives. Make a strategy to minimize or mitigate the hazards.


Identify the Primary Agents of Change


Identify the early adopters in each area. Typically it will be those who appear most enthusiastic about the prospective change and want to be a part of it. Then, give training to those people to be well-versed in the objectives and goals and the techniques and instruments you will use to achieve them. These are the people you'll want to stay informed and updated on during the process. Always pay attention to what they have to say. All of this information will assist you in making minor modifications to make the transition go more smoothly. They will also assist in keeping everyone else informed.




Recognize those who are working hard to adapt to the new procedure. Demonstrate how the advantages are beginning to materialize. Communicate how this new impact approach benefits your company, whether in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, or any other factor important to your company's culture. Attempt to tailor the implementation process to the participants' natural tendencies.


Invest in Innovation


Stakeholder involvement may be made easier and simpler with well-designed solutions. However, using numerous technologies not designed for impact data management can be time-consuming and resource-draining in the long term.


Quickly Verify Assumptions


A Theory of Change outlines the effect you desire for both accountability and internal knowledge of possible organizational problems. The major issues identified in the Theory of Change are your fundamental assumptions. You'll quickly understand how complicated the Theory of Change is when you explore it — it's not simple to plan out the long-term path you'll follow to uncover the concealed assumptions. 




With your initial Theory of Change, don't over idealize your projected initiative. A Theory of Change should be viewed as an amendable framework, with its long-term effects on learning in mind year after year.

Theory of Change: Examples in Action 

Here are some Theory of Change examples that have stood out among the crowd. These examples would not be possible without effectively executing the Theory of Change methodology. 


Project Superwoman


Project Superwoman was a genuine initiative that began as a cooperation between a social service provider, a career training facility, and a domestic violence shelter. The goal was to help domestic violence survivors find long-term, living-wage jobs in non-traditional occupations. In this example, Project Superwoman effectively identified long-term goals, performed backward mapping to connect outcomes, and focused on interventions needed to create the intended change. 


The Hunger Project


Hunger and poverty are complex, multifaceted problems to solve. A comprehensive approach to transformation is required for long-term success. The Hunger Project has campaigned initiatives that are community-led and concentrate on women while addressing the fundamental causes of hunger and poverty. To successfully meet their goals, The Hunger Project outlined their main intervention topic areas and identified strategies to create long-term sustainable solutions needed to create the outcomes necessary to achieve their intended impact. 


Fiver Children's Foundation


The goal of the Fiver Children’s Foundation is for youngsters to grow up to be happy, satisfied people who reach their full potential in life by assisting them like all parents do for their children. The organization wants them to have the confidence to pursue their ambitions and the perseverance to try again if they fall short. Ultimately, the endeavor is a success if the children can take what they've learned at Fiver and make it available to the rest of the globe. Fiver has a thorough Theory of Change model with a clearly defined vision and pathways for success that ultimately help them achieve their goals. 

Measuring Social Impact with UpMetrics

Grasping the concepts behind Theory of Change should provide more than a teaser for would-be stakeholders. It should be a clear and actionable roadmap for creating quantifiable social impact. If you'd like some assistance figuring out how your organization's existing data collecting and analysis practices relate to your KPIs, short and long-term goals, and Theory of Change, reach out to UpMetrics. 


At UpMetrics, we believe that data is worthless unless it’s linked to a narrative about the human experience. Transform your social impact efforts into a compelling story that will motivate workers, investors, and customers alike. Our impact measurement and analytics tool aids in defining, measuring, and reporting the impact of your social projects. Contact us today and request a demo!

Post by Greg Woodburn
September 10, 2021