Theory of Change

What is it?

Theory of Change is a tool used to model how short-term changes lead to long-term impacts. It is used primarily in the context of social and humanitarian problems, but it can be used in any context where human efforts intend change (such as problems of engineering, policy, or design). You can think of a Theory of Change as a series of linkages, where one thing leads to another, which leads to another.

The Theory of Change model forces the design team to articulate assumptions. In creating the model, the team designates the inputs—levers—to manipulate and must state how these levers will affect an outcome. The model demands that implied causality be made explicit. The model also identifies linkages between things that are in your control and those that are not. For example, you may have some control over where you place a set of tents for homeless people in the city but little control over existing zoning regulations. The Theory of Change forces you to find a connection between where you place your tents and how policy must be changed.

The Theory of Change also forces the design team to state the nonfinancial value they intend to produce and to link that value to the problem through an intervention. This helps the design team to focus— to say "we are working in support of this, but not that"—and to identify political, social, and systemic constraints.

A Theory of Change is used to define outcomes, and to identify outputs and inputs.

An outcome is the humanitarian value that a team expects to produce, such as minimizing the prevalence of poverty. It is described as a series of changes. Short-term or micro changes might include knowledge, skills, attitudes, and motivations. Medium term—or intermediate—changes may be related to behavior, practice, policy, procedure, activities, and methods. And long-term change affects the environment, social conditions, economic conditions, and political conditions. The outcome describes the "desired state."

To achieve an outcome, you must create outputs, the "who" and "what" of the design intervention. An output describes who is affected—directly and indirectly—by the design team's actions. For example, homeless people may be directly affected by your actions, while the zoning board, neighbors, and politicians are indirectly affected. The output also describes what is produced—the result of your product or service—such as the artifacts (physical, digital, or knowledge-based) that are made along the way.

Inputs, sometimes describes as strategies, activities, or interventions, are the things you invest and the product or service that you create. Investments, the resources used to start the process, include time, money, physical resources like buildings or computers, partners, intellectual property, etc. The process of design is a strategic input. The actual product, system, service, activities, interventions, or other "design product" that is made also acts as an input into your Theory of Change because without it, the cycle would not begin.

An example Theory of Change model.

How do I do it?

To use a Theory of Change, include ethnographic research, meaningful empathy, and a degree of humility, and an insistence that the desired end state be culturally sensitive. In light of "design for versus design with," build the Theory of Change with your target audience—including the users whom your design will affect.

First, ask, and answer, questions about the existing problem. Describe the need, and explain who has it. For example, you might want to help the homeless people in your city, and so you might frame their need as "the homeless people in my city need physical shelter to protect them from the weather." That statement describes the problem, why it's a problem, and whom it affects. But it also makes large-scale assumptions that you must validate. Are you sure homeless people want physical shelters or that they don't already have access to them? Is weather the largest problem they face, or are other problems more pressing? As you gain empathy with your target audience, you can better answer these questions. Recruit people from the target audience as co-designers.

Next, describe the desired state. If you are successful, what will the world look like? Also describe the people who benefit and how they benefit. For example, if you successfully provide physical shelter for homeless people, you would answer questions such as these:

  • Do all homeless people benefit? Or only those who habituate certain neighborhoods? Only women and children?
  • Do the served population have access to shelter that is permanent, or only temporary? And any day, or only when the weather is bad?
  • Does the change affect only housing, or does it also address compounding issues, such as— economic self-sufficiency, literacy, and self-confidence?

Also objectively describe the people who may suffer from your change. For example, how do the downtown shop owners and their businesses react to a new homeless center in their areas? Does the center affect tourism; if so, how? Does it change how others who support homeless people do their jobs?

Clearly, you don't know for sure, but you can tell a credible story about the desired situation, and you can continue to refine it over time.

Now define the behaviors that need to change to achieve the outcome. Who needs to change—just the homeless people, or also politicians, voters, the police, and neighbors? Identify each individual or set of constituents and describe and examine the behaviors that must change. Come up with an incentive structure for the necessary behavioral change. What are the rewards, and are they financial, social, or cultural? How will they know about these rewards? Are the rewards part of your design intervention, or do they come as a result of changing attitudes? Also describe the constraints on behavioral change. What roadblocks do you face as you attempt to shift attitudes and behaviors?

Finally, draw the Theory of Change as a model (sometimes called a "logic diagram" or "logic model"). Draw a series of circles that represent inputs, outputs, and outcomes. Arrows connect the circles to show how one step leads to another. Inputs—your activities and designed interventions—lead to Outputs—the knowledge and results of your interventions. Outputs lead to Outcomes, the social value you are seeking. This model may contain as few as three steps or as many as a dozen.

At each step, reflect on your contextual research and ethnography. What do you know about the target population that can inform your assumptions? Are you making broad generalizations that you can narrow with further research? What do you know the most about? What do you know the least about?

When should I use it?

You can create a Theory of Change model at the start of a social entrepreneurship project, but it will be most useful when some ethnographic data informs the model's creation—when you can claim some degree of expertise over the content. Then continue to refine the model over the course of your project. Stick the model on the wall in your workspace and review it weekly: Have your priorities and goals changed? Have constraints shifted? Has your increasing knowledge shed light on new opportunities or demands?

What is the output, and how can I use it?

The Theory of Change model is a map—a visual illustration of how steps in a process link to one another and how actions in the shape of designed interventions drive change. It shows a chain of events leading from the things you can control the most (your design) to the things you control the least (other people's behaviors).

Where can I learn more?

Read the free eBook (pdf) Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results and Learning, by Organizational Research Services.

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Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving