What is a Theory of Change (ToC) and why is it important? This guide to understanding and developing a ToC shows how a ToC helps to configure the conditions needed to achieve desired change, using the experience of a given context. This is done partly by making assumptions explicit and by analysing them critically. It is also a monitoring tool that facilitates accountability. A good ToC allows development practitioners to handle complexity without over-simplification.
The systematic use of a ToC helps practitioners to be constantly aware of the need to review and update their assumptions about a change process. Using it with other stakeholders enables a shared view of reality and, therefore, of the change process. At the same time, by including stakeholders from different political and identity-based positions, the exercise helps in the political process of achieving coordinated action agreements based on negotiating shared meanings.
A theory of change is a multi-stakeholder, collaborative experiential learning exercise that encourages the development of the flexible logic needed to analyse complex social change processes. It is also:
- A creative visualisation exercise that enables practitioners to focus on specific future realities that are both desirable and probable.
- A set of assumptions about how reality could unfold in the immediate future, based on analysis of the current context, a self-assessment of capabilities for process facilitation and a critical review of assumptions.
- A thinking-action approach that helps to identify milestones and conditions that need to occur if the desired change is to happen.
- A semi-structured change map that links strategic actions to certain desired results.
- A process tool that helps to monitor individual and collective ways of thinking and acting.
A theory of change is not a definitive recipe that eliminates the uncertainty of complex and emerging social processes, or a blueprint of how change has to (or is going to) happen. Nor is it a substitute for the Logical Framework as a rigid planning tool.
In order to create a ToC, it is important to understand the purpose of the change, the issues involved, and the main stakeholders. Further steps are to:
- Establish the time span of change.
- Create the story that would explain the change in the particular context: the historical background, the political, social and economic conditions affecting or being affected.
- Study conflict areas and their causes: relationships between the stakeholders, societal structures and other initiatives that could help or hinder change.
- Make sure the underlying assumptions of the ToC are valid and accurate: consider what might not be obvious. This needs to be constantly reconsidered and adjusted throughout the process.
- Determine the Pathway of Change: the strategic areas and objectives that will be the focus of action, and the conditions that need to be met in each area.
- Understand the factors that oppose or support the change process: strategic alliances with other stakeholders, the social and political capacities of stakeholders to create a more inclusive process, the mechanisms for accountability, learning and decision-making.
- Determine who collects, selects and analyses the change indicators, and establish their purpose.
- Establish who takes part in the design and implementation of monitoring and accountability systems, integrate lessons learnt for future actions and find ways of achieving deeper and more contextualised social learning process.