Change is generally a complex social process requiring many preconditions and developing through various intermediate steps. It can be unpredictable and require learning and adaptation.

A Theory of Change (ToC) represents the ideas and beliefs people have – consciously or not – about why and how the world and people change. It represents the ideas and beliefs about a change process, and how an organisation activates and steers these processes towards the change aimed for.

It is a model of how a group of people believes an intervention – such as a project, a program, a strategy, an initiative, or a policy – contributes to a chain of intermediate results and finally to impact. In effect, it describes how change happens within societyOr perhaps more accurately phrased: “within a social system”. The term “social system” comes from sociology. It entails the interrelationships and interaction between individuals, groups, and institutions and how these together form a whole and a functioning society. Examples are local communities, geographical regions, nations, religious groups, but also biological systems such as an ant colony. Hence, environmental sustainability is often also part of a ToC. and how an organisation sees itself contributing to realizing the vision that it has set out to change for the society.

A ToC helps to explain the rationale behind how the organisation pursues societal value creation and why it is or will be successful in creating impact and changing the social system positively.

At the core of ToC thinking is to bring to the surface critical assumptions. These are the beliefs, worldviews and guesses about how change happens. Desired ends and conditions that need to exist for planned change to occur but that cannot or have not been proven. Success depends on the validity of these assumptions and hypotheses but we often are unaware that we have them.

  • A ToC aims to define the building blocks required for a long-term goal to be achieved. Also, it specifies the interdependencies between these building blocks. It thus explains the dynamics by organizing inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes into pathways that lead to change.
  • A ToC looks beyond a single organisation and instead incorporates an ecosystem of actors that affect the social problem set out to change. Indeed, an organisation generally is not able to produce system-wide change on its own.
  • A good ToC is grounded in the local context. The influence of the context on the change processes is an essential dimension of a ToC. Legislation and local cultural characteristics for example may enable or inhibit certain change processes and the way certain activities work out.
  • A ToC is more than a product. It’s a process, mindset and culture. A process to test results and a critical questioning attitude. A mindset of continuous learning. It represents a culture of constant analysis, co-creation with stakeholders and reflection. It’s the ability to facilitate this mindset and culture that often gives ToC the most value. Indeed, a ToC is about strategizing and as such a strategic management approach to societal value creation.
  • A ToC can apply to a company, NGO, program, project, joint-venture, business unit, sector, etc. It may even refer to a network or coalition. The phrase ‘organisation’ within Changeroo can therefore apply to any of these units of analysis and depends on whose ToC you’re developing.

ToC: A Broader Perspective than Your Organisation Alone

To achieve the impact a social organisation seeks, generally multiple preconditions need to be in place. Most likely, the organisation is only active to achieve a subset of these preconditions and depends on other organisations to ensure these other preconditions will be in place.

The unit of analysis of a ToC therefore is the entire system of actors working together to influence the achievement of the vision of success. Some preconditions may be completely outside your control, while others may be under your control or influence.

The development of a ToC is a process of backward mapping: it starts with your vision of success, then the preconditions, irrespective of the influence and control your organisation has over them. Lastly, are the strategies and interventions to achieve these preconditions. So what you do comes last in the analysis. Often the mistake is made to start the analysis with what the organisation does.

A full ToC thus models the whole ecosystem of actors that together brings about change. This demonstrates the usefulness of ToC thinking as part of forming partnerships. It reveals potential and necessary areas for collaboration as well as a framework to form a shared vision on the required implementation for real change.

Of course, you may want to start with a limited scope and first develop a ToC that not yet captures the full ecosystem.

Further reading

Read the following articles for more information on “Theory of Change” to understand why ToC is so well positioned as a communication and engagement tool, and the ideal basis for any impact measurement.

Expert Lenses

Some Features of a Great ToC

The table below summarizes some of the main features of a great ToC.

A great Theory of Change incorporates the features below…
Brings to surface critical assumptions
Every ToC builds upon certain assumptions—beliefs, worldviews and guesses about how change happens, desired ends and conditions that need to exist for planned change to occur but that cannot or have not been proven. In fact, one of the most important benefits of developing a ToC is that it brings to the surface the implicit assumptions upon which success builds. Making assumptions explicit helps to become aware of them, critically discuss and test them, and make adjustments where necessary.
Combines a visualization with a narrative
A good narrative summarizes the ToC textually, making the visualization easier to understand.
Incorporates an ecosystem of actors and their roles in the change processes
A full ToC incorporates all the actors that have a (potential material) effect on the social issue the organisation seeks to change. The organisation most likely will not be the only actor with such an effect, and an organisation generally is not able to produce system-wide change on its own. A ToC therefore may uncover opportunities for partnerships.
Is grounded in the local context
The influence of the context on the change processes is an essential dimension of a ToC. Legislation and local cultural characteristics for example may enable or inhibit certain change processes and the way certain activities work out.
Takes into account non-linearity
Feedback loops generally are indispensable to understand the dynamics and circular processes within a social system. Such feedback loops represent situations where for example an outcome affects the very same input that generated the outcome. One example is where increased impact lead to a better reputation and visibility, thereby again furthering adoption, which again increases impact, etc.
Is a co-creation with stakeholders
An organisation is unlikely to be able to by itself oversee the entire system that it is trying to change. Therefore, a ToC should be a co-creation with stakeholders. Convinced stakeholders bring to surface blind spots, provide variation in perspectives, provide new ideas, and support where possible. Indeed, actors elsewhere in the value chain, employees, community representatives, customers and consumers, scientists, etc.; they all hold knowledge and resources an organisation stands to benefit from.
Identifies intended as well as unintended impact, and positive as well as negative impact
Unintended negative side-effects can occur and together with stakeholders who experience them, such should be identified and the risk of identified possible negative impact should be reduced. It is good-practice to continuously scan for unintended impact.
Is a continuous process of adaptation and improvement, based on a learning process
The context changes with time, the understanding of the situation improves, new opportunities to seize and threats to avert arise, new actors come into play, etc. A ToC is a continuous work in progress.