Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Theory of Change

  1. What is a theory of change?
  2. How is theory of change planning different from strategic planning?
  3. What can we do with a TOC that we can’t do without one?
  4. What would a TOC planning process look like? How long would it take?
  5. What does a TOC product or graphic look like? See samples.
  6. What are the risks involved in TOC planning and how are they managed
  7. What do all those TOC terms mean?


1.What is a theory of change?

A theory of change graphic depicts where you want your clients (or other target for change) to be in five or ten years, along with the step-by-step journey needed to reach that goal. A theory of change (TOC) planning group comprised of the organization’s leaders and staff sort through big issues to develop a theory of change. The planning discussions are key to reaching consensus on how to portray the resulting TOC products–a model of your organization’s intended social impact and a short narrative explaining it.

Much more than these tangible products, the organization will have greater clarity and consensus about why it exists, what it aims to accomplish in the community and how its leaders and staff believe positive change occurs.

2. How is theory of change planning different from strategic planning?

Theory of change planning is a form of strategic planning that involves visioning, surfacing of shared values and “reality checking”. Implementation and action planning come after TOC planning. Creation of a theory of change is an excellent way to prepare for strategic and action planning.

TOC planning involves working through such important big-picture questions as “Which target group will we hold ourselves accountable for helping? In what specific ways do we expect our beneficiaries’ lives to be improved? Why do we believe our current activities will lead to the changes we intend? How will we know we are achieving the intended outcomes in our theory of change model?”

3. What can we do with a TOC that we can’t do without one?

The process of surfacing and examining differences in a safe space to reach clarity and consensus on the group’s vision of a better world creates an agreed-upon strategic framework for the organization. This shared understanding can form the basis for making tough decisions at both the board and staff levels. When everyone understands, agrees on and undertakes strategies to better align the organization’s programs and operations according to the same North Star, they are setting the stage for an effective and efficient organization. Theory of change planning is a powerful method that can:

  • Inspire, unify and motivate your team
  • Clarify how diverse activities synergistically advance a common vision
  • Help board and staff better understand the mission and vision and enable them to better articulate them in their own words
  • Strengthen fundraising, marketing and communications
  • Kick off strategic planning with a shared vision
  • Provide a results-focused framework for deciding tough resource issues
  • Guide internal or external program evaluation
  • Design and modify results-oriented programs
  • Orient new board and staff to your organization
  • Align operations with your mission & vision
  • Inform a more efficient organizational structure

4. What would a TOC planning process look like? How long would it take?

  • The process usually starts by forming a “Project Design Team” of up to four board and staff members and the consultant. This group guides the project design, agenda planning for all meetings and ensures culturally appropriate methods and language are used.
  • Sometimes, there is a theory of change orientation session for the full staff and board to enable them to ask questions and raise concerns before the planning commences.
  • After the orientation session, a planning group of 10-13 members is created to participate in four or five TOC planning sessions. Typically, the planning group is comprised of board, staff leaders and managers. Over the course of a few months, the planning group members work through important mission- and vision-related questions and decide how best to portray the “social impact model” of their organization.
  • Once the planning team is satisfied with its draft graphic and narrative, these products are shared with other stakeholders in the organization, including the full board, the rest of the staff, beneficiaries and key funders and donors. Feedback on the model and narrative are solicited from these groups.
  • After stakeholder feedback has been incorporated into the draft graphic and narrative, the organization’s leaders determine how best to implement their new theory of change. Many groups find it helpful to undertake strategic and action planning to determine the strategies and tactics needed to build the capacity to achieve and track progress on the model’s outcomes. Frequently, the group’s leaders will revisit the organization’s structure to increase alignment between vision, mission and operations. It is not uncommon for a theory of change to prompt culture change in an organization, requiring intentional change management efforts.

5. What does a TOC graphic look like? See sample above and here.

6. What are the risks of undertaking TOC planning? How can they be managed?

TOC planning can be a mentally and emotionally challenging process. It sometimes surfaces internal differences of opinions about what is important and/or how intended change occurs. Groups may learn that key leaders and staff are shooting for different “North Stars” in their work. Conflicting values underlying the work of the organization’s staff and leaders are sometimes revealed.

The goal of TOC planning is a consensus vision for intended social impact and a shared understanding of how best to achieve this impact. The process focuses first on defining the group’s intended social impact. Then the TOC planning team uses its members’ knowledge of the field and their collective best thinking to predict which activities are most likely to accomplish this impact. The team sometimes discovers that the organization needs to do some different things from what it currently does—or perhaps that it needs to do some current things differently.

In my experience facilitating TOC planning, the vast majority of stakeholders are thrilled to see depicted how their previously silo-ed efforts help form a cohesive whole–all in service to the clarified vision. Many feel empowered by their increased clarity and agreement about why the organization exists and more confident about sharing their deeper understanding with others, such as prospective volunteers, board members, donors and funders. The newly clarified strategic framework often forms the basis of a modified organizational structure and greater agreement on how best to make challenging resource decisions.

See also this Stanford Social Innovation Review piece about other risks in TOC planning and tips for avoiding them.

7. What do all those TOC terms mean?

  • Assumption: Underlying belief (idea or knowledge) about how things work, what causes what—worth examining closely and testing
  • Activity: Program service or activity
  • Logic Model: Similar to a theory of change, a planning, evaluation and communication tool linking the activities, inputs, outputs and measurable outcomes of a program, often in a matrix. Generally done starting with program or activity, logic models are often used to design a program or as an evaluation framework. They are best done after the creation of a theory of change.
  • Narrative: A 1-2-page written story of your theory of change, explaining what it means and how the early outcomes lead step by step to later ones
  • Outcome: Result or meaningful change–often in a person’s knowledge, attitude or behavior—or in the functioning of a system
  • Pathway of Change: The trail of results or the sequence of outcomes you intend to create by delivering services to your clients or running other types of programs, often in three or more tiers showing which outcomes must precede the next tier of results in order to reach the USI
  • Target for Change: The specific group of people or system (as narrowly defined as possible) that you are trying to change, typically your core clients
  • Theory of Change: A strategic planning process that involves planning backwards from the vision of long-term social change (Ultimate Social Impact, or USI) to the present activities; also the resulting flow chart or other visual graphic (product) that depicts the predicted sequence of outcomes on the target for change
  • Ultimate Social Impact: The long-term social good you wish to create for your community or your clients/target population; think about 5-10 years from now; typically expressed as a present tense statement