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What You Need to Know About the Theory of Change but Are Afraid to Ask

If you want your nonprofit organization to thrive, it needs a strategy. Simply put, a theory of change can define a nonprofit’s paths, its impacts, and the relationships between activities, programs, and outcomes. The unique structure of your theory of change can take on various forms. For example, a diagram, model, or even a roadmap that includes the pathways, assumptions, activities, and expectations from initiation to conclusion of any nonprofit activity, intervention, or special program, or even the organization as a whole. Once established a theory of change is the ultimate strategic tool and can be used as a guiding force to achieve a nonprofit’s mission or implement a new program.

Here we discuss the benefits of a theory of change and what you need to know before you begin creating one for your nonprofit organization.

As we mentioned, a theory of change (TOC) can be developed in various forms. It can be constructed from one or two sentences, or it can be mapped to look like a diagram or flowchart. The point is, there is no one right way to construct a theory of change.  Its design can vary whether it’s used for strategic or evaluative purposes, a focus for a specific initiative, or for fieldwork. However, the process behind developing a TOC does have common areas that differ from tackling traditional strategic planning.

  • Its focus is not on the organization’s development rather its impact on the community the organization serves.

  • Understand that a TOC requires constant reflection, action, and revision if meaningful contributions to social change are the goal.

  • Consider that a single nonprofit does not create social change in a bubble. An organization’s role is most important when viewed from the perspective of policy change, societal change, and engagement with the community and other organizations that have had success. Within this context, a nonprofit deepens its understanding of its purpose and ultimately leverages and encourages excitement about the organization and its mission beyond its walls.

The Benefits You Can Expect from Forming a Theory of Change

Forming a TOC is a powerful way to demonstrate your nonprofit’s current status as it works towards achieving positive direction in the world. More importantly, a theory of change illuminates the influences and connections between current efforts and contributions. Think of it as a visual representation of the value your organization creates to effect the change it desires to see in the community. Once established, you’ll find a TOC reveals:

  • A deeper understanding of the issue(s) your organization addresses within the current context of the community in which it resides or the societal movement it serves.

  • A clear knowledge of the values that guide and inform decision-making and day-to-day work.

  • A distinct focus between the organization’s efforts and resources in its contributions to change.

  • The issues that have seen improvement or resolution because of the contributions implemented by your organization.

  • A more defined description of your nonprofit’s methods that contribute to change.

  • An opportunity to use the TOC as an evaluative tool throughout program implementation, not just before program kickoff or after its completion.

  • A framework to improve future program design or mission delivery.

Criteria to Consider When Forming a TOC for your Nonprofit Organization

  • Is everyone – board, staff, and partners – in lock-step on what success should look like? Are there differing ideas about why this work is important to the mission?

  • What external forces may threaten the organization’s approach to its mission? Are there significant external forces that can enhance the current methods of work? When considering these questions, think about what affects your nonprofit—leadership transitions, organizational growth, policy change, other organizational successes, social movements, and changes in public perception.

  • Will internal and external leaders, with informal or formal powers, be willing to engage and reveal challenges and questions about the way your organization currently works? Hopefully, leaders will enjoy stakeholder trust, have the curiosity to question, and the energy to see that shifts in thinking can bring about change for the better.