Definition of Theory of Change

A Theory of Change (TOC) is the causal pathway of what change we think will occur from our action. It is a specific and measurable description of a change initiative that forms the basis for planning, implementation and evaluation.

A traditional representation of TOC is “If X... then Y... because...”.

All projects have a Theory(s) of Change behind them but often they are unarticulated or assumed. When we articulate them, we are able to reflect on and measure the change behind the action. When you articulate the TOCs behind your work, you are able to make them available for examination, monitoring and evaluation. You can create specific indicators to measure the change that you expect to see from your action. This is important for a field like peacebuilding which traditionally has not been very good at evaluating the impact of its work.

For example, you may believe that working with political youth groups on community-level resolution in Nepal will bring about a reduced amount of violence but if you state it clearly, then you can try to properly measure it. Here, the above example is stated more clearly as a TOC. “If we train political youth groups in the xx region on xx skills for facilitating local community disputes, and we engage with them on the importance of and the acceptance of their role, then they will have the skills and desire to engage. They will see the value of engaging in local community disputes in a positive way”.

Many TOC are not stand alone and feed into each other. The next TOC, building on this, would involve moving beyond just training and coaching the youth, but also engaging other members of the community so they are aware of this new role of the youth in community resolution. If there is understanding, then the theory is that they will accept and not resist it. The next TOC might involve encouraging the community members to access the youth local dispute resolution mechanisms. Then there might be another about trusting the process around their mediations and decisions, leading to lower amounts of violence, so on and so forth.

Further tips on Theories of Change.

The EC-funded Peacebuilding Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Project

CARE International is coordinating a project that is striving to strengthen the institutional and operational capacity of civil society actors and governments to design, monitor and evaluate peacebuilding and conflict prevention programming. It uses the TOC approach to critically evaluate assumptions underpinning peacebuilding programming and will explore simple methods to demonstrate impact while building local capacity.

The project, implemented in in Nepal, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will test the effectiveness of a number of peacebuilding TOCs and pilot innovative but simple approaches to monitoring and evaluation. These TOC, drawn from existing peacebuilding programming in each location, will be analysed and critically assessed through in-depth research by local Research Groups.

On completion of the research, partners will design and pilot innovative methodologies for on-going monitoring and evaluation over the project. These new M&E frameworks will be practical yet simple / ’light touch’ methods to continue to monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of the TOC in existing programming, without replicating the detailed research already conducted. The frameworks will be tested and the learning from the entire process will be turned into meta-learning papers and “How to” tools that can be easily adapted by other projects in the future.

When we can demonstrate change and effectiveness, and make modifications based on learning, we can improve our work and contribute to greater learning in the field. It important to stress that CARE does not maintain that the TOC approach is necessarily THE way forward for design, monitoring and evaluation of peacebuilding, but it is one way, and it is an engaging way to proceed. Many, from academics to project implementers, have found the approach useful and relatively simple. It is clear that is why donor agencies such DFID, USAID and the EC are adopting this approach to show impact and value for money.

What this means for CARE International

By engaging with the TOC approach for peacebuilding design, monitoring and evaluation, CARE is able to contribute not just to the reflection on its work but also to the peacebuilding field more generally. It is offering simple and approachable ways for articulating how what we do will have a particular result, and then striving to measure that result towards its contribution to the larger peace context.

Recently at the consultation at DFID on Value for money in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution, it was clear that TOC is in the Governance VFM model that was presented by DFID. TOC was presented as a tool for articulating change effectiveness and impact which will be mandatory as DFID moves forward with the VFM approach. This is encouraging for NGOs, like CARE, that are seen as trendsetters both in developing tools around TOC design, monitoring and evaluation; but also in critiquing their own work.

Additionally, through the Peacebuilding DME project, we have developed connections with and have collaborated with donors on articulating TOC in their own work. We supported USAID CMM on developing their own TOC families and have also submitted one of the four case studies for their “How to” guide.
Similarly, the EC is under pressure to demonstrate to parliament that their funding initiatives are contributing effectively to conflict mitigation and peacebuilding. Funding this project, which strives to contribute to the body of knowledge available to practitioners, is a clear example.


Date Posted
Using Theories of Change: Guidance for designing, monitoring and evaluating peacebuilding programming
Heidi Ober
Practical guide for taking the tools and appoaches developed in the DME project and making them accesible for NGO practitioners.
Theories of Change Guide
Peacebuiding with Impact: Defining Theories of Change
Learning paper, bringing together the results of the DME project.
CARE DME Theories of Change Learning
Theories of Change Guide for DFID part 1 and 2
Developed for DFID advisers, these guides explain from the start the theory and practical application of theories of change in social change programming
Part 1 - CDA
Part 2 -SFCG
USAID Theories of Change Families
USAID's grouping of seven families of theories of change. Useful for comparing and categorising approaches based on the changes they expect to see.
USAID Families Theories of Change.pdf
Guide to Developing a Theory of Change, IPAL 2008
An alternative way of describing a theory of change used by IPAL, who acted as consultants to ECARMU. Contains step by step activities.
IPAL ToC Guide 2008