Theory of Change: Your Deliverance or Your Downfall?

Theory of Change (ToC): a specific type of methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used in the philanthropy, not-for-profit and government sectors to promote social change. Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions, which are mapped out in an outcomes framework.

ToC goes beyond monitoring and evaluation to really understand how you achieve long-term sustainable improvements. I first got to grips with monitoring and evaluation at Freedom from Torture when we were applying to the EU for large scale funding and had to come to terms with their log-frames (or logical frameworks), which were relatively unsophisticated at that time, but asked for inputs and outcomes and evaluation; that is what actions the organisation took, what change then happened on the ground and how it was evaluated. The first two parts of the frame were easy to fill in but the next took a lot of tact. Try asking therapists what their indices of change are, or try pointing out if they don’t measure their outcomes against some criteria how can they show they deserve the grant that pays their salaries.

And that is exactly where, if your overall ToC doesn’t hold up and make sense in real world conditions, you are doomed to receive many more icily polite letters of rejection; because the change you may be able to prove may not be linked to the overall desired change in your particular context, which that is ideally expressed in your mission and most probably in the objectives of the grant-maker to which you are applying. Your ToC should map the ‘missing middle’ between what your particular programme does on the ground (which may indeed be measurable) and the overall desired goals of both organisations.

Of course, it must be clear how both these activities affect each other and how the work on the ground leads to the desired overall change. This is done by mapping it into an Outcomes Framework, but be careful that this isn’t just another log-frame, and does actually deal with the steps needed as preconditions to meeting the overall goals of your organisation. I have found ToC workshops at senior management level, plus key programme staff are necessary to really understand the process, especially in complex organisations with staff who may have conflicting ideas about the purposes of the field work, its effectiveness and the possibilities of providing a coherent link between mission and messy everyday reality.

At best, your ToC will unite the organisation from board level to programme staff and make the job of both fundraising and communications much more effective. Of course, it may also keep finance busy as the money comes in and the overall clarity attracts new supporters.

Don’t get me wrong this is not an easy exercise, it depends on mapping backwards from overall goals and that means agreeing them, not merely as visons but concrete realities the organisation is to create. It requires strong, dynamic leadership to map the stepping stones to those goals, which the programme work builds towards – hopefully all the way. There should be no missing steps in this logical staircase, or your whole ToC will fall apart and your work won’t appear realistic to funders or supporters alike. We are no longer in the age when people gave to organisations with a respectable branding and inquired no further than that. Today, perhaps more than ever, we are becoming obliged to reach out to really-wealthy people who have made, not inherited, their own fortunes and these people want to look at the process they are funding, because they want to use their wealth to make significant change in the world; in the same way that they have made real change happen in their businesses.

If you can’t really tell them how this takes place they are unlikely to make the kind of breakthrough grant that enables you to scale up or indeed any kind of grant other than a token gift. I have seen this several times at the critical ask stage of capital appeals when the potential donor asks why the new building is needed and receives an answer along the lines of, “We don’t own the old one”, “We want to take on more staff” or “We have some really exciting ideas for the future” and somehow the immediate reality gets in the way of simply explaining how the building is a stepping stone to achieving the organisation’s goals and changing the world. Of course, sometimes it isn’t, and the key to significant change is something else, of which the new building is a component not the key factor; but if the building is crucial to that then that has to be made clear. That would be apparent if the organisation has its ToC in place.

My own organisation, the International Fundraising Consultancy (IFC) has always known changing the world was its mission, and the way we would do that is through helping non-profits and other social change actors to scale up their work – one client at a time. To do that we have steadily expanded internationally and now have offices in 10 countries right around the world. Of course, this isn’t the whole of our theory of change, but it is the outline on which we have built our day to day work to achieve significant change.

If your ToC is clear but not perhaps agreed and written down, it may be time to formalise it and check everyone is on board, or if it doesn’t exist I think you may have an interesting time ahead. In the real world deliverance is better than downfall.

John Baguley, Chair, Group IFC