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Step and Type - Context elements
by Changeroo
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Context elements are the external factors in the operating environment that could affect whether outcomes and impacts and their desired attributes are achieved.

In this step you build on the situation analysis to define the important context elements.

Understanding the context includes understanding the wider setting and the conditions which have a direct bearing on the organisation’s interests. Change processes are part of a wider social system. Legal circumstances, culture, the economy, geographical conditions, institutional and political setting; all may hamper or advance the desired change and enable or inhibit your organisation’s effectiveness. Contextual elements are therefore also referred to as ‘influencers’.

‘Systems’ thinking is crucial in understanding the context of an intervention, particularly when the context is complex.

Contextualizing your ToC

Every situation and organisation is unique. For example, tackling nutrition insecurity in a rural area in Ghana, West Africa, is very different from dealing with the same issue in an urban area in India.

Every ToC therefore requires tailoring, taking into consideration the contextual realities. This includes tackling challenges to your vision of success as well as leveraging the context to your advantage.

By specifying how the context is important to your interventions and the course of the change process, you build a ToC that is grounded in the local context. Focus on what is really relevant and important in relation to the intervention. You could use a mind map or the rich picture if you made one to visualize contextual factors, as part of the Situation Analysis.

Contextualising a ToC may take different forms:
» By aligning the Theory of Action with the local context. For example, the Apple a Day initiative might select a different type of fruit depending on the local availability or the local cultural perceptions of different types of fruit. Or it might recruit its delivery staff from either local youth, older people or people with a handicap, depending on amongst which group unemployment is most problematic and thus contribute in tackling a local unemployment challenge.
» The course of the change process may reflect the local context. Indeed change may come about differently in different contexts. For example, while it may be necessary in one context to focus on a change of cultural norms to enable behavioural change, such behavioural change may largely come about through training of new skills in other contexts.
» It is good practice to tailor the terminology used as part of a ToC’s visualisation and narrative to the context. In the private sector words like ‘business case’, ‘access to credit’ and ‘competitive advantage’ might resonate better than for example for charities.
» Similarly, it is good practice to tailor the ToC development process to the problem area you address and the cultural background of the stakeholders involved. For example, when addressing gender issues there are various tools and concepts, such as gender mainstreaming, a facilitator can build on when developing a ToC. And while some cultures in Latin-America may require a facilitator to first take a step back and reflect on the process of ToC thinking, in some Asian cultures there may be more need to ask probing questions to activate stakeholders to contribute in a positive but critical way.

Anticipating Contextual Change

Context analysis is also about identifying future trends and developments, and being able to anticipate and be pro-active in response to any changes in the environment.

It is important to regularly review the context in which you operate. While an initial situation analysis may provide a solid basis for designing an intervention, things can quickly change in dynamic environments. For example, an agricultural project may have been designed to address food insecurity in a particular region, but it can be affected by factors like drought, policy changes, or civil conflicts. Also organisational issues such as staff changes, office conflicts, internal policies and procedures, may affect how well a development initiative is implemented.Kusters, C.S.L. and Batjes, K. with Wigboldus, S., Brouwers, J. and Baguma, S.D. (2017) ‘Managing for Sustainable Development Impact: An Integrated Approach to Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation’, Wageningen: Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen University & Research, and Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.

Questions to Ask

  • Is the organisation more effective under some conditions or circumstances more than others? With some target groups more than with others? At some sites more than other sites?
  • Which political, social, historical and economic conditions affect or are affected by the change process?
  • Which societal structures (formal and non-formal institutions, legal frameworks, cultural practices, etc.) play a role and how do they affect the process or are they affected by the process?
  • What are (historical) areas of conflict and the causes of conflict?
  • What gender specific factors, actors, values and dynamics are at play?
  • Which geographical or environmental factors are of importance?
  • Are there actors in the ecosystem that hamper the strategies and the way outcomes work together to generate impact?
  • What support from outside the organisation is needed for the success of our ToC?
  • How does support for our vision of success, in terms of public and political will as well as funding and investment, affect the ToC’s effectiveness?
  • What is the current business climate like and how does this enable or inhibit our effectiveness?


Realist Matrix

Realist matrices help to understand “what works for whom in what situations”. The matrix focuses on one or more causal mechanisms and examines the contexts in which an intervention works and in which contexts it doesn’t work. You could decide to include a realist matrix as part of the strategy narrative ‘Validation’ for the relationship between a context element and another ToC element.

* BetterEvaluation, Realist Matrix.

Journey of Life

Map out the lives of individual people benefitting. Show the key ups and downs of their journey toward change. Discuss what has caused the ups and downs, and identify the organisation’s activities and context elements that contribute to or obstruct change. Draw out from different groups the common strategies, activities, interventions and steps that contribute to this change. Rank these to get at least 3-5 core beliefs about how change happens. Discuss and note why we think these work. Draw out the context elements that hinder change and that we cannot influence directly to identify key risks.

Analysis of The External Macro Environment

There are many such models, one of which is PEST. This method looks at the Political, Economic, Social and Technological factors and is often extended with other factors as well.

* Strategic Management Insight on PEST analysis.

Rich Picturing

An often used tool to describe/illustrate the current situation is ‘Rich Picturing’Adapted from A rich picture is a drawing of a situation that illustrates the main elements and relationships that need to be considered in trying to intervene to create improvement of a certain situation. It consists of pictures, text, symbols and icons that should all be used to graphically illustrate the situation. It is called a rich picture because it illustrates the richness and complexity of a situation.

A rich picture is a way of thinking holistically. It helps us to see relationships and connections that we may otherwise miss. It is considered as ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. Developing a rich picture is a good exercise to do with several stakeholders as everyone can add to it and use it to explain their particular interests or perspectives. Besides, a rich picture can also be a non-threatening and humorous way of illustrating different perspectives and conflicts.

* Oakden, J. (2014). If a picture paints a thousand words: The use of rich pictures in evaluation. Kinnect Group. Available here.
* Multi-Stakeholder Processes Knowledge Co-Creation Portal on rich picture.
* ‘Rich pictures’ at The Open University.

Appreciative Inquiry & Appreciative Storytelling

This is an approach to understand a social system through a search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them. Traditionally we take problems as point of departure. But appreciative inquiry flips ‘problem solving’ on its head and inquires into the positive of what is, and from that seeks to envision the social system as it could be. Appreciative storytelling is part of appreciative inquiry.

* Appreciative Inquiry Commons of Case Western Reserve University.

* E.H. Kessler, The Appreciative Inquiry Model.

* Wikipedia on Appreciative Inquiry.

* Multi-Stakeholder Processes Knowledge Co-Creation Portal on Appreciative Story Telling.

Success Case Method

The purpose of Success Case Method is not to examine the average performance – rather, by identifying and examining the extreme cases, it asks: ‘When the program works, how well does it work? What is working, and what is not?’ It is useful for documenting stories of impact and for understanding the factors that help or hinder impact. It is particularly useful for uncovering the contextual forces that influence impact. Also, it facilitates adaptive management in response to contextual changes or new understandings.

An example of an application can be found on the blog below by Liz McGuinness. First, participants were interviewed to identify success cases. The second step was to interview the participants and their supervisors in order to learn more about how they were successful, and which conditions enabled or inhibited this success. The same methodology could be used to identify unsuccessful cases in order to learn why and under what conditions, they were not successful. Brinkerhoff who developed this approach delineates five steps in the Success Case Method.

* BetterEvaluation blog ‘Lessons from a trial of the Success Case Method’.

* BetterEvaluation article on ‘Success Case Method’.

Types of Context Elements

The Institutional Environment

One typology to distinguish between the context elements or influencers is the one below.Largely based on: and It has a strong institutional component to it.

  • Service systems and practices: such as the education system, healthcare system, community service resources (e.g., a photocopy shop in the community), transportation system, energy system, law enforcement, etc.
  • Community norms: such as beliefs, principles and tolerance for different beliefs.
  • Public will: the motivation to change with regard to the change searched after.
  • Political will: the political system and its motivation to support the change.
  • Policies & regulations: such as legislation that supports or hampers the ToC.
  • Partnerships: collaborations and their strengths that support or hamper the ToC.
  • Business practices: the business climate such as increased transaction transparency, inclusive participation, commitment to contractual relationships, shared technological standards, etc.
  • Issue visibility: visibility of the issues you’re trying to change, for example via regular media coverage.
  • Environmental constraints: any environmental issues affecting the ToC’s success such as water scarcity for example.
  • Leverage: the external environment’s commitment of resources related to your vision of success. Includes financial resources – public or private funders’ investment strategies such as public funds, philanthropy and private investment – as well as non-financial resources such as staff dedicated to activities related to your vision of success.
  • Learning processes and systems: transfer of knowledge and strategic learning in the external environment around relevant issues.
  • Other

The Context’s Building Blocks

Another typology distinguishes between the following context elements or influencersBased on

  • Actors: refers to organisations, groups or individuals in terms of their attitude and what they do or the approach that underpins their activities.
  • Institutions: refers to both formal and informal policies, cultural arrangements, traditions, law, legal frameworks, religious values or beliefs, etc.
  • Assets: refers to human capital, social capital, natural capital, physical capital and financial capital (that which an individual, group or society can make use of).
  • Technologies and systems: refers to an (integrated) application of assets for a certain purpose, which can be a particular technology such as ICT, waste water treatment, or an integrated system such as a particular type of resource management or financial management.
  • Processes (trends): refers to emerging issues and developments such as urbanisation, climate change, demography, economic decline, etc.

Drivers-of-change Approach

Another typology for context elements that may affect change processes is offered by WarrenerD. Warrener (2004) Synthesis paper 3: The drivers of change approach. London: Overseas Development Institute.. In this model the three elements are defined in ascending order of flexibility and relative speed of change:

  • Structural features—the history of the state; natural and human resources; economic and social structures; demographic changes; and regional issues.
  • Institutions—the informal and formal rules that determine the realm of possible behaviour by agents. Examples are political and public administration processes.
  • Agents—individuals and organisations pursuing particular interests. Examples are the political elite; civil servants; political parties; local government; the judiciary; the military; faith groups; trade unions; civil society groups; the media; the private sector; academics; donors.

Sphere of Influence

Some context elements may be considered as “given facts”; while over others your organisation holds an influence. Hence, we distinguish between context elements inside and outside the organisation’s sphere of influence:

  • Inside the sphere of influence: Contextual elements the organisation has (at least some) influence on and helps give shape.
  • Outside the sphere of influenceContext elements outside the sphere of influence may also be incorporated in your ToC in the form of assumptions rather than separate ToC elements.: Context elements that do affect the realization of your organisation’s vision of success but for which your organisation has little or no influence on. They are “given facts”.

Expert Lenses

More About Context Elements

Building the right context for lasting change: Contextual Change as Outcome or Impact

To build the sustainable systemic change necessary for impact often requires also a change in context. It requires creating a sustainable enabling environment. Changes in context elements themselves then become outcomes.

If changing the context is an important part of your rationale for change, you probably will want to include such a contextual factor as an outcome or impact and not as context element. While if it’s more about how the context influences your rationale and effectiveness, you would include it as a context element in your visualization.

Bloom and DeesP.N. Bloom & G. Dees (2008) Cultivate your ecosystem, Stanford Social Innovation Review, available at distinguish between two primary paths for creating systemic change. One involves changing one or more of the environmental conditions that shape the behaviour of players. The other involves introducing an innovation that spreads well enough to establish new and stable behaviour patterns. They continue with four strategies to achieve both paths:

  • Forming coalitions
  • Communications (to frame the issue so you help build support for your cause)
  • Credibility (make the case that the change you propose will work) and contingencies (to forecast how your ecosystem and the players in it might react to any change,
  • Be prepared with potential countermoves to capitalize on the situation or mitigate negative influences).


A contextualized ToC informs about the scalability of the ToC to other contexts. It informs about what elements need to remain the same as success depends on them and what elements can be adjusted to the local content to ensure local effectiveness.

Context Elements and Opportunities & Threats

Context elements and changes (trends) in context elements can offer opportunities and threats. One of the strategy narratives within Changeroo allows you to discuss such opportunities and threats in more detail, such as how you seek to take advantage of the opportunities or how you seek to neutralize a threat to your ToC’s success.