The Difference A Theory of Change Makes: Ways The Tough Process Reaps Big Rewards

Theory of change planning is hard work; there’s no question about this. It challenges leaders to question why they do what they do and have been doing for a long time. The process forces the leaders to make tough decisions, decisions they may have avoided making for some time. For instance, it is not uncommon for groups to struggle while they seek a consensus definition of their “core target population”. This is the group of people the leaders care most about and intend to hold themselves accountable for making measurable progress. It is distinguished from the entire “service population” which includes all of the different groups receiving services from an organization.

See the sample TOC below that shows this group serving families with young children ultimately determined that it was the young children for whom they intended their work to most meaningfully impact.


Often, large social services and even smaller youth development organizations, such as the ones I worked with recently, provide services to a wide range of groups, frequently in multiple locations or communities. Sometimes clients or participants range in age from two years to 26 years. Often clients bring different kinds of life experiences and “barriers” that require distinct efforts to address. Clearly, working with pre-schoolers and elementary school students requires a different approach. Compare these activities with those offered to middle and high school students or interventions meant to turn around the dangerous trajectory of gang-involved youth and you understand the challenge of narrowly defining a group’s “core target population.” Simply coming to agreement on the common traits or challenges of all these groups is hard work, but worthwhile. The meaty discussions leaders have as they grapple with this process illuminate their core values and the key reasons they care about the people their organization serves. In most nonprofits, there are few opportunities to have such discussions.

In the two TOC processes I led early this year, the groups worked hard to unravel the underlying issues involved in defining the most central or “core” part of a group’s service population.  To come to an agreed-upon definition, leaders in both organizations realized they needed to take the complexities swirling around this question one at a time. Which group was more fundamental to their mission success–the family or the children and youth the group worked most often with? If they identified clients in all six communities where they worked as the core population, would their odds of success be less than if they focused on just the communities where they had a strong presence? How does a group define a target population in “static” terms when every group of people is constantly changing and getting older (with no help from anyone)? I gently guided the groups to create a “good-enough” working definition of their core target group, advising them that, down the road, they may choose to revisit these thorny questions in order to resolve them, but that it was also fine to let them simmer until greater clarity arrived. Both groups intended to share their draft TOC graphics with key stakeholders (full staff, board, others), from which they would solicit feedback on whether the graphic told a story they related to and aptly portrayed the organization, its values and its work.

To What End? What’s the Ultimate Picture of Success, Anyway?

Once leaders have come up with a working definition of the core target group, they move to the next step in the TOC process—defining the “ultimate social impact”. This is the long-term outcome the leaders seek for the core target group. Typically, it is expressed as a ten-year goal. Depending on how complex the organization is—types of activities, number of programs and sites and differences in groups served—this can be another difficult step. Again, though, the conversations leaders have as they work through the optional ways of expressing the top-level outcome they seek for their clients are deep and meaningful. Invariably, they surface unspoken, implicit assumptions about what leaders care most about and believe most strongly about their work and their clients. Commonly, a set of core values permeating the organization’s staff and leadership surface as a result of doing these important first steps in TOC planning.

I have written previously about the big rewards former TOC clients have reaped. At least two have used the TOC as an organizational model to restructure departments and reporting relationships. One former client is using their TOC and associated logic models as “source documents” to make tough management decisions around allocating resources to avoid “mission creep.”

As CompassPoint’s Shannon Ellis states in her recent post about her organization’s theory of change, “Adopting a theory of change means that we are making a collective commitment to continually grapple with the meaning of our work together. It means we hold ourselves and each other accountable to achieving our intended impact, not only to exceptional program delivery.”

She also notes that while there are several approaches to creating a theory of change, they all share the following elements:

  1. Focus on achieving impact, not on developing organizations.
  2. Recognition that meaningful contributions to social change require ongoing reflection and action throughout an organization.
  3. Understanding and valuing the fact that organizations do not create social change alone.

Read her full post here.

I was also touched by a series of short videos of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) Founder and CEO Christa Gannon talking about how a theory of change helped her nonprofit challenge its assumptions, clarify its values and enable everyone to understand the big picture and exactly how their particular work matters. It also helped them to identify the specific data needed to track their progress and deepened the staff and leaders’ commitment to changing the lives of FLY’s at-risk young clients. Produced by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.