Theory of Change

The Center for Theory of Change is a non-profit organization established to promote quality standards and best practice for the development and implementation of Theory of Change, with a particular focus on its use and application in the areas of international development, sustainability, education, human rights and social change.

Theory of Change (ToC) is a specific type of methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used in the philanthropy, not-for-profit and government sectors to promote social change. Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions.[1]

Theory of Change explains the process of change by outlining causal linkages in an initiative, i.e., its shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes. The identified changes are mapped –as the “outcomes pathway” – showing each outcome in logical relationship to all the others, as well as chronological flow. The links between outcomes are explained by “rationales” or statements of why one outcome is thought to be a prerequisite for another.[2]

The innovation of Theory of Change lies (1) in making the distinction between desired and actual outcomes, and (2) in requiring stakeholders to model their desired outcomes before they decide on forms of intervention to achieve those outcomes. A common error in describing Theory of Change is the belief that it is simply a methodology for planning and evaluation.[3] Theory of Change is instead a form of critical theory that ensures a transparent distribution of power dynamics. Further, the process is necessarily inclusive of many perspectives and participants in achieving solutions.

Theory of Change can begin at any stage of an initiative, depending on the intended use. A theory developed at the outset is best at informing the planning of an initiative. Having worked out a change model, practitioners can make more informed decisions about strategy and tactics. As monitoring and evaluation data become available, stakeholders can periodically refine the Theory of Change as the evidence indicates. A Theory of Change can be developed retrospectively by reading program documents, talking to stakeholders and analyzing data. This is often done during evaluations reflecting what has worked or not in order to understand the past and plan for the future.

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