Like the Camel Thorn tree that thrives in the arid climate of Namibia thanks to a deep network of roots, theory of change (ToC) may provide stability to social programs through a similar network of roots.  By delving deep into an issue, ToC can help articulate and support an organization’s vision.

We highlighted the use of ToC as a reflective tool to align social impact strategies among coopetitors, or social good organizations that often vie for limited resources. This was a slight departure from the more common use of ToC as a tool supporting the evaluation of social programs. Now that we have established a base understanding of ToC, we will focus on the mechanics of this framework and how you can take it a step further to guide and shape program planning. We have found both uses worthwhile with our clients and wanted to share this upgraded approach to ToC.

Mapping the Theory of Change

Theory of Change is a compass, plotting both the desired outcome for a particular issue and incremental steps required to get there. The Center for Theory of Change describes it as the “building blocks required to bring about a given long-term goal.” ToC can be represented as a set of statements or a graphical representation, often in a tree or root-like form (below).

After identifying the long-term outcome, or a vision, pre-conditions are mapped backward to create a logical flow linking to that vision, forming a “pathway to change.” To dive deeper into the layers of the root network, the question we need to ask ourselves is “what needs to happen if…(insert precondition).” The pathway can be a few layers deep or a highly complex and tangled web. What matters is how well the network captures the underlying “root” cause of the issue.

Exploring Pathways to Change

The basic example below, modified from an example in a report by Keystone, lays out the pathways of change to employing youth ex-offenders in Johannesburg.

The ultimate vision of the program is always situated at the top of the ToC. What is the long-term change we want to affect? The subsequent layer of pre-conditions is comprised of the core program components and assumptions.  What needs to happen for this change to come about? For the youth ex-offenders program, it is creating marketable vocational skills, strong work habits, providing counseling and social services, and increasing the supply of job opportunities that will accept the youth and be attractive to the youth.

The deeper layers of the root network are built on if-then relationships with the previous level. What needs to happen in order to achieve the pre-conditions? In order to ensure the youth attain marketable vocational skills, the program must train them on relevant skills for job opportunities in the area. In order to ensure that job opportunities exist, the program needs to partner with employers willing to take on the youth. Then, the program needs to ensure these employers are educated on how to deploy the youth effectively, assuring job retention.

The purple boxes on the diagram illustrate intervention points where this particular program is investing their resources in. However, in order to achieve the ultimate vision, organizations need to ensure that all linkages are being addressed, either through their own work or through partnerships.

As all nonprofit professionals can attest, our environments are constantly changing.  Moreover, we are constantly recalibrating our models based on evidence that may challenge our assumptions. As a dynamic and flexible framework, ToC can support an evolving process and should be revisited for successful outcomes. Just as a deep and extensive network of roots provides stability and sustenance for desert trees, a well-constructed theory of change can act as a solid foundation for program planning.

Share your organization’s theory of change with us on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.

Special thanks to fellow colleague and TrendSpotter, Elly Brown, for sharing this information with our readers.

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