How Strategy & Theory of Change Converged to Strengthen a Nonprofit

Several years ago, a social justice organization in an underserved low-income community solicited significant stakeholder input and developed a strategic plan that laid out a vision and broad goals for long-term positive social change. The planning team did not create an implementation plan to operationalize its ambitious goals, however.

A few years later, a funder offered the group an opportunity to work with a facilitator to develop a theory of change (TOC) and program logic models. At first, the $2 million group’s long-time executive director felt that such planning would help one department plan a new program. But she quickly realized that crafting an organization-wide TOC might lead to strategies for responding to pressing management challenges. Among them, she suspected that an agency-wide TOC could:

  • Clarify the steps the organization needs to take to realize their strategic plan’s aspirations of community impact;
  • Promote shared vision and values among managers and other staff; and
  • Facilitate communications about how the organization’s many services and programs serve a common end.

Over several months, the Management Team created a theory of change and logic models based on their strategic plan’s long-term vision. The results were impressive; all of the director’s initial goals were realized:

  • With five years of sequential outcomes in each of four major outcomes areas, the detailed logic models now serve as results-focused action plans for program staff to implement the high-level strategic plan;
  • Managers better understand their own and other managers’ roles in the complex organization, enabling them to work more effectively as a team and compete less often for resources; and
  • Communicating to internal and external stakeholders the rationale for the group’s myriad services and advocacy efforts has become easier with the TOC’s straightforward depiction of different strands converging in a strong and equitable community.  Slide1


Although it was lengthy and often challenging, the planning project led to unanticipated improvements, including:

  • The Management Team was restructured to distribute responsibilities and is now aligned according to the TOC’s long-term community outcomes;
  • At weekly meetings, the new Management Team uses the TOC and logic models to plan across “silos” and to hold each other accountable for the work of the whole organization; and
  • Managers employ the TOC and logic models–“their source documents”—as filters to decide which opportunities to pursue and which to forego.

This last shift may be the most significant. Once the managers have determined as a team which new initiatives are essential for advancing the organization’s (and their shared) long-term goals, they discuss the best ways to redirect resources to accomplish them. This new practice has ensured broad management buy-in and reduced resistance to change.


The above case study describes how one organization used theory of change and logic model planning to operationalize a previously developed strategic plan and solve long-standing management issues. The same organization is now looking to come full circle.

With their current strategic plan expiring this year, the organization intends to build a new strategic plan and operational plans based on the vision and outcomes pathways in their TOC and logic models. Their TOC will serve as the aspirational cornerstone of the new plan, guiding goal-setting for the coming 3-5 years. As noted earlier, the logic models already serve as program implementation plans.

The need this year is to develop detailed action plans for building organizational capacity in key management areas. There is agreement among the board and management staff that substantial investment in the areas of human resources, leadership transition, financial management and information technology is required to enable the organization to achieve its ambitious vision for social change in their community.

Do you have a strategic plan that needs to be operationalized? Might a theory of change and logic models solve outstanding management challenges? If you already have a good theory of change, is it time to integrate and translate it into a new strategic plan? Might a TOC help kickstart your strategic planning this year?

Please send me an email—–with your comments and questions on strategic planning and theory of change. Do you agree that the two processes can work synergistically to build a strong, sustainable and effective organization? If not, why not? If so, have you done it or seen it done? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences either way!