Theory of change is a great resource to support effective social justice interventions. Yet for many organisations, using this valuable tool can be challenging. In our theory of change series, we hope to address these challenges by providing easy-to-understand information, tips, and useful resources.

Our first article in this Theory of Change (TOC) series provided an introduction to the concept of TOC, some examples, and the benefits for various types of social justice interventions. This second article explores some important process considerations for organisations wanting to develop a theory of change, and outlines an example of a simple process that can be used and tailored - but first, we will highlight some key points to think about when setting out on the process.

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Planning your TOC process

There are a number of approaches organisations can take when developing a TOC. The following considerations will help inform decisions about how to structure this process, and whether to undertake it internally or to bring in a facilitator to help.

Purpose and use

First, consider the 'why'. What do you want to get out of the process, and how do you want to use the outputs? Some common uses of TOC include:

  • Designing or planning a new program
  • Evaluating or reviewing an existing program
  • Clearly communicating how a program works - internally (e.g. new staff) or externally (e.g. funders or supporters)
  • Building consensus and shared purpose amongst a team or group of stakeholders.

There may be more than one reason - so what's the most important reason? And how important are other reasons?

In developing a TOC for an existing program, it can often be easiest to start by describing the activities and outputs that are occurring, and work 'forward' - linking them through chains of short term and interim outcomes to the long term impact. You can then use this as a base for considering what other activities, outputs and outcomes might need to be considered in achieving your intended impact.

Alternatively, if you early are in the planning phase of a new initiative to address an identified need, it may be valuable to start with the outcomes and impact you want to achieve, and work 'backwards' toward outputs and activities. This reversed process helps to uncover what needs to be in place - the pre-conditions - in order to achieve desired outcomes. This can then inform which activities are planned and how they might best be delivered.

For organisations seeking to evaluate or communicate their work, it can be helpful to think about the organisation as a whole, as well as the distinct programs or initiatives it delivers. After developing a TOC for the whole organisation, the process can then cascade down to also develop more granular program-level TOCs which clearly show how each program directly contributes to wider organisational outcomes and impact. These program-level TOCs can then inform detailed data collection activities to monitor and evaluate progress against relevant organisational goals and KPIs.

Who should be involved?

Programs often have many stakeholders with different interests. Decisions about who should be involved, and how, require some reflection on the purpose and use of the TOC.

Who should be directly involved in the process of developing the TOC? Who should have the opportunity to provide feedback once it is drafted, and how? Who needs to be aware of the TOC when it is finished, and why?

Having a diverse range of stakeholder perspectives informing the development of a TOC will usually result in a more robust and well-informed design that resonates with and makes sense to everyone. If the TOC is being developed as a way of building consensus and shared purpose, it will be important to have the whole team at the table. If the TOC is being developed to design a new program, think about who has relevant sector or subject matter expertise, as well as the key people responsible for planning and delivering the program. Service users or participants can sometimes be overlooked in this process - the people who will benefit from an initiative will have unique and valuable perspectives that should be drawn upon.

Of course, incorporating the right mix of stakeholder perspectives also needs to be balanced against the practicalities of facilitating an effective process. More isn't always merrier!

Having a diverse range of stakeholder perspectives informing the development of a TOC will usually result in a more robust and well-informed design

Who leads and how do they lead?

As with many group processes, it can be most effective to have one person responsible for leading the TOC development process. This usually includes facilitating one or more group workshops to brainstorm the core content elements and their sequence, as well as driving the coordination, feedback and revision work that follows the workshops. Consider who has the right skills to take on these roles. A good facilitator can positively manage group dynamics, ensure everyone has their say, capture input clearly, and effectively manage time to get through the whole process. The coordination, feedback and revision processes require strong attention to detail and can be time consuming. It may be that two people work together, one to facilitate discussions and one to coordinate and drive the process.

If resources permit, it can sometimes be valuable to engage an external facilitator to guide the TOC process. This may be the case if no internal facilitator is available, or when an internal facilitator also has relevant knowledge or an important perspective that needs to be captured in the TOC - an independent facilitator can free them up to fully participate in the process alongside other stakeholders. Similarly, when organisations are new to TOC and unfamiliar with the process, an expert facilitator can help support a focused and effective process.

Resource constraints

There isn't always the budget to engage an external facilitator - but this may not be the only resourcing consideration when developing a TOC. Other financial factors may include travel for stakeholders based in other regions, hiring a larger meeting room if needed, and software or graphic design to produce a polished product.

The most common constraint, however, is time. Involving a number of team members and stakeholders in a TOC workshop and consultative feedback process means valuable time away from day to day work and service delivery.

It can be tempting to 'just fit it in' around other priorities - but this can be risky. If not enough time is allowed for a TOC workshop, the resulting TOC is likely to be under-developed. Outcomes or assumptions may be missing, the causal links between immediate and longer-term outcomes may be unclear, or stakeholder views under-represented. If not enough time is allowed for stakeholder review and feedback, consensus and shared understanding may be compromised. Either way, the resulting TOC will be less useful and less effective in serving its intended purpose.

In our experience, the average TOC will require an initial group workshop of up to 4 hours, followed by 2 to 3 iterations of stakeholder review and feedback, which will usually involve further meetings with selected stakeholders.

Overview of process

  1. The big picture – problem/need
  2. Activities and stakeholders
  3. Outcomes and more outcomes
  4. Linking up the outcome chains
  5. Evidence, assumptions and external factors
  6. Draw it up
  7. Review and refine

An example TOC process - step by step

Many organisations are looking to develop a TOC for a program that already exists. Here is a simple process that can be used by anyone looking to create a TOC in this context. This process can be adapted and scaled as needed, but steps 1-4 are best undertaken together in a group TOC workshop.

Step 1: The big picture

Start by brainstorming to define the problem or need, and the intended positive impact of your work.

Problem/need

Think about the societal problem or need that your program addresses.

  • What is the experience of the people that your work is intended to benefit?
  • What are the causes of the problem?
  • Are there barriers to achieving better outcomes? What are they?

Brainstorm a number of ideas and statements, which can be summarised later into a concise description of just 2-3 sentences.

The ideal world - impact

Now imagine the 'ideal world' scenario.

  • What would it look like if the problems/needs you just identified, were all fixed?
  • What would people experience?
  • What support, resources or opportunities would they have access to?
  • How would this benefit their community and society more broadly?

This is the ultimate intended impact of your work.

Remember to focus on the specific work that your program does, and don't try to tackle larger social issues outside your program's scope.

Example

A small organisation delivers English language and literacy education to women and girls seeking asylum. Their 'ideal world' scenario would likely be focused on the ultimate effects of asylum seeker women and girls having improving English literacy skills. Perhaps they might have more equal access to education, work and community participation? How might their families, local communities or society as a whole benefit as a result? Might their families have better health and wellbeing? Would our community be more culturally diverse and rich?

Although this organisation would likely have a passion about broader social justice issues, they would need to be careful to keep their impact statement aligned with the scope of their work. Their 'ideal world' scenario would probably not be that nobody ever needs to seek asylum or flee their country, nor that asylum seeker policies are improved and immigration detention is a brief and less damaging experience. (These scenarios may well be relevant to TOCs for other types of initiatives, such as those working in international human rights, peacemaking, legislative reform, or advocacy campaigns).

Again, brainstorm a number of ideas which can be summarised later into a pithy 1-sentence impact statement.

Step 2: Activities and stakeholders

Grab your sticky notes and textas, it's time to get hands-on! For the next steps you will need a wide workspace with plenty of room to work from left to right - such as a big whiteboard, or 2 pieces of butcher's paper joined in landscape format.

What do we do?

Think about the various activities that your program delivers. What does your team actually do, in broad terms? Write the activities on sticky notes and stick them on the left-hand side of your chart.

See if you can categorise them into functional groups, so you don't have too many activities. Avoid going into too much detail - don't get down into task level.

Example

A workforce capability building project team might identify tasks like 'Run training workshops', 'Register attendees', and 'Book workshop venues and catering'. These three could all be grouped together under a broad activity category 'Deliver training workshops'.

Who do we do it with or for?

For each activity grouping, consider the target audience or beneficiaries. Are all your activities focused on the same group of people? Or do some activities target different stakeholder groups?

Example

A disability advocacy organisation delivers self-advocacy workshops and an advice line to people with disability, but also undertakes systemic advocacy through government relations and campaigning activities. These are two very different stakeholder groups.

If this is the case, move your activity sticky notes so that all activities targeting the same stakeholder group are placed together (still on the left-hand side).

Step 3: Outcomes and more outcomes

Write your 'ideal world' impact statements from step 1 onto sticky notes, and stick them on the far right-hand side of the chart. If some of your statements describe quite similar impacts, group them together.

Now think about the outcomes you're trying to achieve through your work.

  • When you do these activities, what changes for the people, organisations or systems that your program works for or with?

Depending on the kind of program, possible changes for people can include knowledge, attitude, confidence, behaviour, relationships, safety, health, emotional wellbeing, participation, access to resources and opportunities, and circumstances like housing or financial independence. Changes for organisations and systems can include differences in legislation, policy, practice, processes and systems, resourcing, structure, organisational culture, efficiency, effectiveness, coordination and integration, and many other areas.

Write each outcome on a sticky note and place it to the right of the relevant activity (or activities) on your chart. You might have more than one outcome per activity. Use a different colour sticky note from the activities, and a different colour for each stakeholder group, to help with visual clarity.

Consider immediate outcomes, medium term and long term outcomes - the longer the time frame, the further towards the right-hand side of the chart your sticky note can go. Consider outcomes at community wide as well as individual levels.

Example

An active lifestyle program for seniors delivers exercise classes at the local community centre. Their intended outcomes could be:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Increased social connections
  • Improved strength
  • Improved health and wellbeing
  • Reduction in falls
  • Reduced depression
  • Improved healthy life expectancy

Step 4: Linking up the chains

So how do these outcomes fit together? Which outcomes are related to each other, or dependent upon a previous outcome or activity? Can you organise them into causal chains where outcomes are linked in an 'if-then' sequence? You may have already identified some of these causal links in step 3 and placed your activities and outcomes on the chart in the right order.

Test your thinking by drawing an arrow from outcome to outcome - does the logic flow? It can help to ask questions like 'If they have/do this, then can they get/do that?', or 'Then what … and then what?'

Move your sticky notes as needed to create a strong logical flow. If you identify an outcome or activity that is missing, add it in. Join up the causal chains from your activities on the left all the way to the impact on the right.

You will probably find that some of your chains join up in the middle or near the right-hand side, as individual level outcomes roll up to influence community or system-wide impact.

Example

Using the earlier example of local exercise classes for seniors, in Figure 1 we can now see two distinct outcomes chains which join together to contribute to an overall impact of improved healthy life expectancy.

Image of two outcomes chains joining together to contribute to a single impact

Figure 1: Two outcomes chains join together to contribute to a single impact

Step 5: Evidence, assumptions and external factors

Once the desired outcomes of the program are mapped out, it is important to identify any other major factors that are likely to influence the achievement of outcomes. This step can either be done at the end of your TOC workshop, or separately by a smaller group.

Evidence and assumptions

What research and evidence base have you drawn upon to design the program? What does past experience tell you about what works or not, and why? What assumptions or hypotheses underpin the logic? Where evidence or assumptions underpin the achievement of specific outcomes in the TOC, mark them on the chart at the relevant spots.

Articulating the evidence and assumptions helps to illustrate how and why you believe the program will work. Highlighting any untested assumptions or hypotheses also prompts you to investigate them through further research or evaluation.

Context

Similarly, it is useful to describe any major external factors that influence program success. This can include organisational, sector, policy and socio-economic contexts, or community norms. What are the implications of these factors for the program? What are the pre-requisites required for the program to be successfully implemented? Consider people's ability to access services, their key characteristics or preferences, the organisational and funding context, and availability of other essential services that people need in order to achieve outcomes described in your TOC.

You may find that some of these external factors are also assumptions. Through this discussion you may also identify additional activities or outcomes which need to be included in your TOC to improve your ability to create change.

Step 6: Draw it up

Now it's time to transform your sprawling web of sticky notes into a useable document. Most often a TOC will consist of a diagram with a brief accompanying narrative. As always, your chosen format should suit the intended purpose and use of your TOC.

A quick online search will offer many free and low-cost software options for producing a polished diagram that can be printed and shared in PDF. Sometimes the drawing tools in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint will suffice. Some specific flow-charting tools that we have used include Lucidchart and diagrams.net - both relatively easy to use web-based tools - and Microsoft Visio.

Whether or not you decide to produce your TOC diagram electronically, it is helpful to draw it out by hand on a whiteboard first. This helps you get a sense of where various activities and outcomes need to be placed relative to each other, to ensure the connecting arrows don't cross over too much and there is plenty of space between each chain of outcomes. Clear layout is vital to ensure people can understand your TOC quickly and easily - try to avoid the 'spaghetti soup' look!

Step 7: Review and refine

Treat the first version of your TOC as a draft, and seek feedback from the people who were involved in TOC workshops and discussions. Is this an accurate representation of what the program does and what it aims to achieve? Is anything missing? Is the language appropriate and clear?

Consider whether any other stakeholders should also provide feedback on the TOC - if so, what is the best way to seek their input? If people are unfamiliar with the concept of TOC, it can be helpful to talk them through it and allow time for them to digest it before giving feedback.

 

Assistance with theory of change

Lirata Consulting assists service providers, advocacy organisations and funders to develop theories of change and other forms of program logic. We also help organisations design, plan, undertake and improve their monitoring and evaluation activities.

For further information or assistance, please contact the Lirata team:

Phone: +61 (0)3 9457 2547
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Download

Theory Of Change: Developing a TOC Step By Step (PDF 387 KB)

Related articles

For more general information about theory of change, check out the first article in this series and the introductory resources provided there.

Theory of Change: A tool for more effective change making

External resources

The following items provide further guidance around developing a theory of change.