Tips for an Inclusive Virtual Theory of Change Process

I am in the final stages of facilitating a theory of change process with a client group I have never met in person. Last summer, the new group invited me to help them develop a theory of change–online. Their funders collaborative requested one to provide them–and the group’s leaders–a better understanding of the social impact the group aims to achieve and how they expect to accomplish that change. I have led more than a dozen theory of change planning efforts with many kinds of groups, but I hadn’t done it virtually.

I wasn’t certain it could be done. Creating a theory of change (TOC) requires a willing group of stakeholders to commit to a multi-step process over several weeks. Each step involves deep reflection and discussion about the group’s reason for being; and each becomes the foundation for the next step. Important questions are posed about who is benefitting in the long run and specifically how. This necessitates a birds-eye view and “mental heavy lifting”.  A lot of conversation, active listening and broad consensus are needed. But before I declined the group’s invitation, I recalled that I had not taught an online class before Spring 2020, and I now teach one every semester. Why not, I thought!

I soon realized that the biggest challenge in this project would be to balance the need for a safe and inclusive online meeting space while gently encouraging forward movement on the planning steps, as time was of the essence. I have distilled several key lessons I learned during this project, below. If my client gives me permission, I will share their TOC graphic here down the road. Meanwhile, I hope these lessons may help you when designing and leading online planning efforts of any kind.

  1. Simplify the process and eliminate steps that are not crucial. While I love all the steps in creating a theory of change and see them as important, transferring the process to an online platform was more than a little challenging. To ensure safety for all, I made many pre-planned and real-time pivots. A small client “design team” helped me design the process, stay on track and developed and revised drafts of a TOC graphic, to which the larger group responded and modified. In early discussions, it quickly became clear that, due to limited online meeting time, we would need to trim the process to the bone, cutting away the “nice-to-have” steps to focus on just the essential ones.
  2. Kick off the process by clarifying terms and concepts using plain language (no jargon) and discuss and agree on how you will work together. These are always important steps, but they are perhaps even more critical in an online planning process when opportunities for confusion and disengagement are even greater than when folks are in the same room together. Participants (and students) withdraw their attention when they either don’t understand something, aren’t able to have their question addressed in a timely way or sense that their needs are not being considered. It’s important to pause frequently for questions and pulse checks to ask how the process is going.
  3. Give sufficient time for breakout room exercises and more time for every step. But be mindful of Zoombie fatigue! As we have learned these last 18 months, online meetings are a tougher slog than in-person meetings. This is particularly true when the meetings involve difficult thought exercises and the goal of consensus, such as in a theory of change process. Seek a balance between getting through an agenda while being mindful of participants’ ability to stay engaged.
  4.  Ensure you have live tech support for every meeting. This means one or two people have agreed to assist you in real time to regularly monitor the online platform’s electronic hands and/or Chat and to interrupt you to acknowledge the written contributions. Anyone who’s led a class or meeting online knows it takes a lot of energy and focus to share your screen for slides or documents and, simultaneously, keep your eye on participants’ videos—all while keeping track of the content, discussion flow and time.
  5. Think in advance about ways to invite and include the participation of the generally more vocal participants who readily share ideas aloud and the less vocal people who prefer not to speak in meetings. Invite participants to either unmute to share or write their thoughts and questions in Chat. Be sure to lift-up their ideas to bring them into the discussion for all.
  6. Employ collaboration tools such as Google Docs and Jamboards. I was not proficient with these tools before this project, but I am now. They are fun and easy for participants share their ideas visually in breakout rooms and later between meetings.
  7. When it is crucial to hear the voices of everyone present, consider an easy-to-use timer app to ensure no one dominates the conversation and all have a chance to share. Our group benefited from the use of a timer (featuring an ‘80s dance “chime”) even when I forgot to set it. Just seeing the clock on the screen encouraged more loquacious speakers to be succinct. (I can’t know for sure, but my “threat” to shimmy my shoulders every time the dance chime sounded may also have motivated folks to keep their comments brief.)

Image: The Theory of Change above is for North Bay youth-serving nonprofit Side By Side. A green winding path leadsfrom program services to long-term outcomes. Cows, vineyards and two cyclists stand in the foreground pointing across the bay to San Francisco in the background. I helped this group develop their theory of change in 2016.