Theories of Change
The Life Changes Trust expects those we fund to have a clear theory of change that explains why they believe their proposal will lead to its intended outcomes. To support this we have published a paper outlining some of the Key Concepts and Approaches we feel are relevant to work with our beneficiary groups, local communities and wider stakeholders. These concepts and approaches focus on strengths based approaches which develop individual and collective capacity for improvement and innovation.
What is a theory of change?
Atheory of changeis an explanation of why you believe your project will lead to positive outcomes.
For example, one theory of change for respite care is that carers’ own resilience will improve and they will be better able to continue to provide care if they have a break from time to time.
There will never be enough evidence from research to allow us to design and deliver interventions using ready-made models. Different places and groups will have varying characteristics and needs. The ethics and values that are important to a particular organisation, group, or community must be taken into consideration in addition to other evidence. We use the term'insight'to capture the idea of evidence, including values, and have produced a paper on Insight and Evidence that outlines our approach to this. A theory of change helps bring all of this together and helps ensure everyone associated with your project understands and agrees with why you are doing what you do.
A theory of change can also help you:
- Plan your activity in a logical and evidence-informed way
- Reduce the risk of doing no good or doing harm
- Know what and when to evaluate
All of this helps maximise the chance of achieving positive outcomes and, importantly, understanding how these were achieved.
Creating a theory of change
A theory of change should be informed by many different points of view, and where available, evidence on what supports the type of change you are aiming for. This might include: feedback from beneficiaries; practice experience of staff and volunteers; evaluations of previous work; good practice identified by others doing similar work, government or funders; and published research. The Trust will publish a briefing on this topic shortly.
New Philanthropy Capital’s practical guide to Creating Your Theory of Change provides some useful steps for developing your theory of change. Usually you begin by identifying the group you are working with and setting out their needs and characteristics. This guide also suggests different ways to represent your theory of change including alogic model. But sometimes a written description is enough.
The largest circle is the farthest reach of your activity. It represents the wider context and community. Here your influence may be indirect or hard to trace and will be where other influences come into play.
The middle circle is wider than your organisation, activity, or direct beneficiaries. This is where you may have a shared mission but have less direct influence.
At the centre is the direct influence that your activity can have on organisations, local contexts, and beneficiaries.
It is also important to consider the amount of time involved in bringing about improvement. We often assume that change takes a long time and that it will only be possible to measure change over some time, often years. And for some types of change, that is a correct assumption.
Yet, many of us know that some changes can happen very quickly. A momentary insight or encounter can open up new questions and alter how we think and act. When the previously taken-for-granted aspects of an issue are questioned, we can see the flaws in our thinking. This might give us a new focus on problem-setting (how we think about the nature of the problem or issue) as well as problem-solving. An evaluation may therefore aim to find evidence of changes in thinking about the nature of the problem. These changes in thinking may, however, challenge the original theory of change and make the original hoped-for outcomes redundant or at least open to revision. You therefore must think carefully about the expected timeline for your outcomes when thinking about your expectations of change.
- Montague, S. (2002) Circles of Influence: An Approach to Structured, Succinct Strategy
- Montague, S., Young, G., and Montague, C. (2003) Using Circles to Tell the Performance Story
- New Philanthropy Capital have produced a practical guide to Creating a Theory of Change. They have also published a guide to the concept called Theory of Change: The Beginning of Making a Difference
- Scottish Government’s Designing and Evaluating Behaviour Change Interventions. Guidance for service providers, funders and commissioners
- Theory of Change by Social Impact Scotland
- Tannahill, Andrew (2008) Beyond evidence to ethics: a decision-making framework for health promotion, public health and health improvement, Health Promotion International Vol 23 No. 4