Why use Theories of Change?

The benefit of thinking about projects in terms of their theories of change is that it helps to clarify for the designer where they have inserted their own assumptions, what the logic of their project is, and where linkages exist between different activities and certain outcomes. By assessing your work using a TOC approach you can more easily identify weak areas, and develop stronger and more relevant approaches to generating desired results. This can be done during a project, evaluating the project after it ends, and also at the design stage before the project has begun.

One of the key objectives when examining the TOC in a project is to identify and explain the underlying assumptions that are embedded in the work. These are often based on the intuition, or prior experience of the designer and are not fully or explicitly articulated anywhere. Often, the designer will not even realise what their own theories behind their interventions are as their assumptions are automatic or unconscious. In addition, many theories overlap, or interconnect meaning multiple theories need to be unpicked.

When you make a theory of change(s) explicit:
  1. The implementer and others can review what was the thinking behind the intervention
  2. You can see if the original design was relevant to addressing the root causes of conflict.
  3. You can see if the chosen intervention was based on a sound conflict analysis.
  4. You can see where changes could be made to strengthen the intervention. – ie. Connecting with others who could amplify your inventions.

Getting to the Theory

There is no one set way to articulate or develop a TOC. It often involves a mix of logic and storytelling, starting with activities at the base and working up a ladder of connecting results to the project goal at the top. Because a TOC is often based on intuitive understandings, it is important to pay close attention to things that may seem insignificant at first and keep asking how or why we assume what we do.

One of the most common mistakes made when stating a TOC is to simply restate the project plan. For instance, “we will do a workshop with youth”. This is not a theory of change but a statement of an activity.

Another common error is making a statement of belief (ideology). Most theories of change come with values, and an ideology can form part of a TOC but they are not exactly the same thing. There should be clarification between the two, and assumptions should be made clear. For instance “Empowered women will work towards peace.” The reasons you think this need to be articulated.

Another mistake is an assertion of methodology, in particular, individual’s favourite methodology. For example, if you are a media NGO, you will tend to develop projects that focus on engaging with the media. This is not a TOC.

Finally, there is often a lack of specificity or relation to the context (culture/ situation) and this can often come from dependence on pre-set lists of TOC. People can mistakenly state, “We will work with Parliamentarians to address policy change”, but what is it that you are hoping specifically to change, why work with Parliamentarians as opposed to others, and if the change is gained, what will it lead to?

Tips for developing TOCs

  • Be descriptive – push yourself to describe how things are related
  • Be annoyingly inquisitive – keep asking why? and how?
  • Be predictive – identify key cause/effect relationships
  • Be comparative – relate your situation to other situations and other programme approaches
  • Be WILD – suggest wild ideas to stimulate creative thinking

As the theory of change is closely examined, it needs to be separated into its component parts. As noted above, the theory may contain several sub theories within it; each of these will need to be spelt out and set out into a phased sequence of cause and effect to fully appreciate the accuracy and logic of the theory.