Theories of change: an annotated review of documents and views

18 May 2011

A few weeks ago, Jeff Knezovich, asked the members of the evidence based policy in development community for some feedback on the way in which Theories of Change (ToC) were being used in planning, monitoring and evaluation of policy research interventions. The response was quite encouraging and many resources were shared.

In my view, ToCs can be a powerful planning, monitoring and evaluation tool but often interventions focusing on research based policy influence forget to base their ‘theories’ –which I have called change pathways elsewhere–  on actual research of how (policy) change happens.As a consequence, the ToC sounds and looks brilliant -perfectly logical- but it is terribly irrelevant for the context in which it will be deployed: e.g. online communication in Sierra Leone (where there is hardly any electricity) or media dissemination in Zambia (where the public and private newspapers have polarised opinion so much that it would be difficult to get a neutral take at politically sensitive evidence, or having he same ToC for interventions in Latin America, Africa and Asia (or even within Latin America Africa and Asia).

Anyone attempting to develop a ToC would do well do first reflect on how policy change happens -and by this I do not mean a quick two hour session in a workshop. This should be the most important part of any planning process. And do not be afraid to be challenged. It is not supposed to be easy. If it was, we would not be spending all this money (and it is a lot of money) to try to influence policy.

In this post I am collecting some of comments and resources shared in the community as well as other that I have found in other sites (for example, a post by Kris Putnam-Walkerly in early 2010 with 10 great resources).

Here is a synthesis of the resources and the comments from the contributors to the online debate (if you have any more to add please do) and from other sources too (references included):

Simon Hearn:

My favourite paper on this subject is by Doug Reeler of CDRA, not so much of a how-to but he lays out some very interesting theories of how social change happens.

There’s also these links:

Jennifer Morfín, offered some key readings:

Francisco Perez offered a reflection:

I just want to write a little note on the theory of change issue from my 11 years working on impact assessment of Public Programs and NGOs.[Note, Francisco is based in Nicaragua.]

Theory of change is a basic element of every development intervention; indeed what we have found is that those programs with a week theory of change, tend to be just wasted money. A second important issue is that these projects have no-clear cut scenarios and variables to monitor changes in the context.

Now, for public policy influence, we clearly need a map of actors; however, our argument should come from a theory of change supported by evidence. For instance, if we promote a land management plan in order to protect water basins. Thus our argument has a theory of change behind; we are saying that if we have an appropriated use of soils, we will not have water scarcity. So, even if we do focus on incidence only, we should have a strong and sticky argument or idea to promote with a theory behind it.

A note from me: What Francisco is suggesting as well is that the Theory of Change –in this case, the pathway of actions, outputs, outcomes and impacts expected- need to be based on a sound theory of how change actually happens. And this is no simple matter.

Lori Heise, also contributed with some personal experience:

I think one of the challenges Jeff is alluding to is how best to apply these notions to the particular program structure that he is referring to, which is a DFID’s research programme consortium.  These are large 5-6 year collaborations between research institutions that commit to work jointly on a particular theme or challenge (like health impacts of climate change — or the one I lead, which is tackling structural drivers of HIV).  The problem is that the goal of the program is to influence policy and practice through generating and applying new knowledge.  The collaboration is rather diffuse and depends on leveraging funds from many other sources.  Such projects require a theory a change about how you believe evidence influences policy change in a particular setting and/or at the global level.  The reality is that evidence is seldom the defining feature driving policy in my experience, although of course our goal is to work toward having it be a greater factor in the future.

So, is DFID’s theory of change for the RPC design wrong? Or at least in need of a revision?

Tionge Saka reminded us that:

Weiss (1998) explains that the term program theory refers to the mechanisms that mediate between the delivery (and receipt) of a program and the emergence of outcomes of interest. There are two kinds of theory and these are, program theory and implementation theory. These two intertwine in the evolution of the program and the combination of these two is called program’s theories of change. A programme theory usually includes

  • Programme inputs such as resources and organizational auspices
  • Programme activities which represent the manner in which the program is being implemented
  • Interim outcomes – that is the chain of responses the activities elicit, which are expected to lead to
  • Desired results

Rick Davies shared Patricia Rogers new book: Purposeful Program Theory: Effective Use of Theories of Change and Logic Models

David McDonald recommended:

An outstanding book on this topic has recently been published:

Funnell, SC & Rogers, PJ 2011, Purposeful program theory: effective use of theories of change and logic models, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA that comes with a companion website.

From Regina Gyampoh-Vidogah:

According to ActKnowledge, a Theory of Change defines all the building blocks required to bring about a long-term goal. ‘Like any good planning and evaluation method for social change, it requires participants to be clear on long-term goals, identify measurable indicators of success, and formulate actions to achieve goals.’

And the toolkit: Theory of Change: A Practical Tool For Action, Results and Learning, prepared by Organizational Research Services

Donna Loveridge also noted that:

As with many terms theory of change can mean different things. The evaluation literature has quite a bit on theories of change and while the ideas have been around for several decades they are getting greater currency/more discussion in the last few years.

  • Huey Chen (1990: 40) defines theory as a ‘set of interrelated assumptions, principles, and/or propositions to explain or guide social action’.
  • van der Knaap (2004) refers to theory as the collection of assumptions, norms and values regarding the causal links between a program’s actions and the outcomes. These definitions differ from the standard positivist-scientific theories.
  • Shadish (1987: 95) describes program theory as ‘hunches and intuition built on common sense and on accumulated professional wisdom and experience about the nature of social programs and how they change’.

Theories may relate to social science theories but may not. In relation to research/knowledge, perhaps ideas or assumptions around research influence and use might be worth exploring (I am more familiar with the literature on evaluation use but can see that there are probably similarities. – see Kirkhart, K. E. (2000) Reconceptualizing evaluation use: an integrated theory of influenceNew Directions for Evaluation, 88).

If research/knowledge is linked to policy influence, I have found this document quite useful. Maybe another area to look at is knowledge and learning.

Other references that you may find useful include:

R2D offered a synthesis of the resources here as well as others. Some of the ones that they added on their own include:

A guide to monitoring and evaluating policy influence.The following article written by Harry Jones at ODI has a very useful introduction to the three  of the most common approaches to theories of change: causal path, dimensions of influence and actor-centred theories.

Keystone have developed some useful resources on how to develop a theory of change, plus they also provide a useful template to start developing your own theory:

  • Theory of Change guide A guide to developing a theory of change as a framework for inclusive dialogue, learning and accountability for social impact.
  • Theory of Change template This interactive PDF template allows you to input information directly into it to build your theory of change.

The Social Framework developed by Rick Davies is an actor centred approach that attempts to map pathways to change through different actors and their relationships to each other.

Predating all of this, the Philanthropy411 Blog posted 10 great resources for creating a theory of change in March 2010:

For general information about what a Theory of Change is and some examples:

  1. Theory of Change As A Tool For Strategic Planning introduces the use of the Theory of Change approach for planning community-based initiatives using examples from the The Wallace Foundation Parents and Communities for Kids (PACK) initiative.
  2. Theory of is a collaborative project of the Aspen Institute and ActKnowledge, offering a wide array of resources, tools, tips, and examples of Theory of Change.
  3. ActKnowledge is currently piloting Theory of Change Online (TOCO), a free, web-based application to create Theories of Change and to learn more about the methodology.
  4. They’ve also provided a guided example of how one Theory of Change was developed.
  5. You Can Get There From Here: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Plan Urban Education Reform” by James Connell and Adema Klem gives an overview and an example in the field of education

For useful manuals, facilitators’ guides, and tools to create a Theory of Change:

  1. The International Network on Strategic Philanthropy has a Theory of Change Tool Manual.
  2. Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results and Learning” was created under the guidance of Tom Kelly (@tomkaecf) at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  3. The Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change created “The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change,” which is a practical guide for facilitators, including what to do before and during meetings with stakeholders, suggested participants, and recommended materials.

And to better understand the difference between a Theory of Change and a Logic Model check out:

  1. GrantCraft created “Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change Approach to Guide Planning.” (BTW, GrantCraft has produced terrific guides on all aspects of grantmaking, so you should definitely check them out)
  2. Theories of Change and Logic Models: Telling Them Apart” is a helpful PowerPoint presentation.

One of the comments to Kris’ blog, I think, deserves special attention (by Holger):

We are living in a world that is ruled by laws of complexity and dominated by an ever increasing degree of uncertainty. However, projects are still managed from a reductionist and mechanistic viewpoint. So far, there have only few simple and applicable models that help organizations to look at their change projects from a complexity viewpoint.

That’s not a model, and even less so a theory. I am more interested in a meta model that helps people to find their own theory of change. For that, we have developed the Change Journey (

The Change Journey is a radical approach to change. It is based on the paradigm that change in organizations is not a linear path from A to B. We offer a tool for developing a specific change model: The Change Journey Map. The Map is inclusive – which means whatever tools and models and theory you are used to can be incorporated.