Theory of Change

“If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there,” said Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Theory of change responds to that dilemma for those in the business of working toward a world of civility, equitable opportunity, and protection of our planet.

Linking strategy and outcome

A theory of change, simply put, is the explicit articulation of the linkages among intentional strategies and their intended outcomes. Often represented visually in the form of an “outcome map,” it can also be accompanied by a narrative statement that describes linkages, assumptions that guide the theory of change, and external factors that may influence how well outcomes are achieved. It serves many purposes, providing, for example:

  • Grantmaking and investment frameworks
  • Strategic statements that foster internal alignment
  • Communication vehicles for partners and stakeholders
  • Foundations for monitoring and evaluation

Propelling large change with “theories of action”

A theory of change usually encompasses a broad landscape. Theories of action are often created to tackle the specific part of the landscape in which actions are planned in a given time period and by given actors.

Theory of change has risen in popularity since the 2000s among foundations, government agencies, multilaterals, and impact investors. It provides a way to create a cohesive picture of their work and to communicate their unique approach to others. Importantly, a theory of change also stands as a counterpoint to evaluation models that rely on experimental designs to test for effectiveness.

Adaptation stands as a core principle of a theory of change—the theory is regularly tested through sound measurement and adjusted. This form of learning is in stark contrast to the randomized controlled experimental (RCT) designs that require more static and controlled conditions for testing, and tend to be expensive and time consuming.