The Theory of Change is a central concept in the evaluation field, which we have recently used in two programme evaluations for the Department of Agriculture in The Western Cape. What exactly does it refer to, and how can it be used to improve how a programme or project is working?
The thinking around a Theory of Change can be applied to projects, programmes, policy or strategies. It can also be applied within organizations. In all of these instances, be it organizational or for an intervention, a mission, objective or strategy is typically formulated. For example, reduce hunger. The ‘how’ in the formulated goal is often not always explicitly addressed.
In 1995, Weiss, argued that a key reason complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. Stakeholders typically are unclear about how the desired change process will unfold and therefore little attention was placed on early and mid-term changes that need to happen in order for a longer term goal to be reached. The lack of clarity about the ‘mini-steps’ that must be taken to reach a long term outcome can reduce the likelihood that all of the important factors related to the long term goal will be addressed. Central to this process is recognising the assumptions that are made. Understanding, and making explicit, the assumptions that will lead to the desired change is central to the Theory of Change.
The Theory of Change offers a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain the mini-steps that lead to the long term goal of interest. It helps to explain how activities are understood to produce a series of results that contribute to achieving the final intended impacts. It can be developed for any level of intervention – an event, a project, a programme, a policy, a strategy or an organization. It can be developed either for an intervention where the objectives and activities can be identified and tightly planned beforehand, or in an intervention that changes and adapts in response to emerging issues and to decisions made by partners and other stakeholders.
A theory of change is usually presented in a visual diagram (or logic model) that allows the reader to see the big picture quickly. It does not usually provide a specific implementation plan. The purpose of the process is to allow people to think about what must be changed before doing it.
Programmes, projects, strategies and interventions need to be grounded in good theory. If the intervention is based on good theory, with well tested assumptions, then managers can be better assured that their programmes are delivering the right activities for the desired outcomes. By creating a theory of change, programmes are often easier to sustain, bring to scale, and evaluate, since each step from the ideas through to the outcomes it aims for, to the resource requirements – are clearly defined within the theory.
PK Thornton, T Schuetz, W Förch, L Cramer, D Abreu, S Vermeulen, BM Campbell (2017): Responding to global change: A theory of change approach to making agricultural research for development outcome-based. Agricultural Systems, 152.
Rogers, P., (2014), Theory of Change, UNICEF.
Weiss, C. H. (1995). Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Concepts, methods, and contexts, 1, 65-92.