Theory of Change (TOC) is a great resource to support effective social justice initiatives. 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.
This third article explores how TOC can support robust design and planning of new programs or projects.
Zoe Vale from Melbourne City Mission shares how her team used TOC to help design a new service model for youth housing.


Theory of Change can be used for many different purposes - design and planning, communication, building stakeholder engagement, Monitoring and Evaluation, and more.

Our first article in this Theory of Change series introduced the concept of TOC and its benefits for various types of social justice interventions. The second article delved into the practicalities of developing a TOC and key considerations when setting out on the process. This third article looks at how TOC can be used to help take program design to the next level.

Difficulties with design

Let's face it - high quality program and project design isn't always easy. It requires some deep thinking and iteration of ideas, which we often don't allow ourselves adequate time for at the early design stage.

Time saved up front, however, often ends up costing us down the track. Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar…?

Design on-the-run

In the not-for-profit landscape we often need to apply for competitive funding for new initiatives. Grant submission timeframes can be pretty short, and often the person or team tasked with writing the application has other competing priorities, so the application is a last-minute scramble.

Sometimes the person writing the application sits in a completely different part of the organisation and may lack in-depth understanding of the way the program works or its unique value. And sometimes, we know in our heads what our new initiative is going to do - what it aims to achieve, and how it works - but once translated onto an application form, it somehow falls short of the clear compelling vision we have in our minds.

This can result in an uncompetitive funding application for a very worthy initiative. Even if funding is secured, a program that has not been thought through in depth will suffer from a lack of clarity which creates challenges for implementation and communication.

"Wait, what…?"

Another common situation is when funding has been secured for a new initiative, and a brand-new team is then recruited to deliver it.

With very few (or even none) of the people who originally developed the project or program actually on the delivery team, it is not uncommon to suddenly discover a few weeks into the establishment phase that we are not all on the same page about what we are planning or delivering.

Team members may have different ideas about what the main priorities are, who the key stakeholders or target groups are, or how we will go about achieving the outcomes. They may be using the same language when talking about the program together, but individually ascribing slightly different meanings or nuance to certain words. Sometimes team members may be unclear on what outcomes the initiative actually aims to achieve, and instead are focused solely on the deliverables or the activities.

At best, this scenario is likely to contribute to 'scope creep' mid-way through a project, or a divided team. At worst, it can result in a dud program that uses a lot of resources, but doesn't achieve its aims.

Between good intentions and great results lies program theory - not just a list of tasks, but a vision of what needs to happen, and how.1

Theory of Change as a tool for clear design thinking

Developing program theory is an effective way to avoid some of these scenarios. Like Program Logic, TOC is a common form of program theory - it is an explicit model of how an intervention contributes to a chain of intermediate results, and finally to the intended or observed outcomes.1

Lirata has worked with many organisations, large and small, to develop Theories of Change. We recommend that when developing new initiatives, teams or key stakeholders work together to map out the TOC.

Investing a few hours in developing a TOC during the early design phase provides a structured process, and a set of tools, to think deeply about the model being designed.

Theory of Change enables underlying assumptions to be identified, brought to the surface and tested with the group. It provides a process for bringing together existing evidence about the intervention and identifying where there are gaps, or where there may be disagreement amongst the group, about how the intervention will work.2

Most importantly, Theory of Change asks us to think in clear and detailed ways about the outcomes that we aim to achieve for different groups of stakeholders. These outcomes will provide focus for our work, and will become the reference points for measuring effectiveness.

Theory of Change challenges us to design just the right suite of activities that are most likely to influence the outcomes we want, rather than simply defaulting to what we are used to doing or delivering.

Case study: Melbourne City Mission's Youth Housing Initiative

In the summer of 2019/20, Lirata worked with Melbourne City Mission's Youth, Justice and Family Services division to develop program theory for a new style of youth housing intervention.

Lirata Consultant Kate Randall interviewed Zoe Vale, Melbourne City Mission's Youth Housing Initiative (YHI) Project Lead, about the experience of using Theory of Change as a tool to support robust design of the new initiative.

KR: Zoe, can you tell us a bit about the Youth Housing Initiative and how it all started?

ZV: We've known for a long time that the current specialist homelessness system doesn't fully meet the needs of young people.

When structural factors such as poverty, family break-down, family violence or justice issues cause young people to become homeless, they often face significant challenges in accessing private rental or social housing. Very little private rental housing is affordable for young people, and young people may also lack the life skills and experience needed for independent living. Plus, they are often carrying significant trauma from their past.

The current specialist homelessness system is primarily focussed on providing a short-term response. It lacks aspiration, it isn't holistic, and it often doesn't sufficiently respond to intersectionality and diversity. Young people need more than just 'being housed' - they need support to maintain housing, overcome trauma, develop life skills, foster aspirations and pursue independence.

So, we got some philanthropic funding to develop a new model, a new approach, to creating a sustainable pathway out of homelessness for young people. We started from the question 'What would you do to address youth homelessness if money was no object?' Big question!

We did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions that led us to what an 'ideal model' could look like. There was a lot to it - a lot of streams - like housing, of course, and a range of different options for structuring that. But also therapeutic support, relationships and connections, independent living support including financial skills, and education and employment.

Because the model was quite complex and had so many interconnected streams, we wanted to go through a process that would help us really clarify the ideas and how they worked together, and refine the program design. We spoke with Lirata and agreed that developing program theory - TOC and Program Logic - would be a helpful approach.

Because the model was quite complex and had so many interconnected streams, we wanted to go through a process that would help us really clarify the ideas and how they worked together, and refine the program design.

KR: So had you or your team had much experience with TOC when you set out?

ZV: I had developed Program Logic before, but only for existing programs. So I was reasonably familiar with how they look and what's in them - that 'pipeline diagram' format. But the TOC work was more detailed than we had done in the past. The level of depth around the outcomes chains and the way they link together was new.

We worked as a team, and across the five of us our experience varied quite a bit. A couple of the team had some knowledge about program theory, and a couple of them had not been through a process like this at all.

KR: So how did you go about developing the TOC? What was the process like, and how was the experience for you and the team?

ZV: There were a few really good things about it. There was a strong sense of collaboration around the process - having all the YHI team members involved, and not having all our ideas set, it was iterative and collaborative for us as a team and that was really useful. The team found the process very comfortable, they could 'think out loud' together.

I found it a very logical process. It was quite clearly stepped out, and it didn't feel rushed. First we had a couple of facilitated workshops with Lirata to identify the long-term impacts we wanted to achieve, and then map the series of activities and inter-connected outcomes that were needed to deliver them. Then over the following weeks we reviewed and refined 3 or 4 drafts of the TOC before we felt it was pretty well bedded down.

Because the TOC was so detailed, I felt like we really got down into the heart of what we were trying to achieve. Away from those 'broad statements' we often fall back on, and into the details of what sat behind it - how the initiative would work and where it needed more thinking. Sometimes in the past, with Program Logic for instance, you might have a 2-hour workshop and then it's just kind of done. You don't feel like you really get to the heart of things. Having the time felt like quite a luxury! We had the big 3-hour workshops, plus small meetings in between to discuss and refine and update the workshop outputs together.

Having a facilitator was very useful, someone to do that drafting and follow-up work in between workshops. It's great to sit in those sessions and have the discussion and thinking, but if you don't have anyone to capture that properly, refine it in between meetings, and follow up with the team on what needs to be done, it doesn't get anywhere.

I felt like we really got down into the heart of what we were trying to achieve. Away from those 'broad statements' we often fall back on, and into the details of what sat behind it - how the initiative would work and where it needed more thinking.

KR: What were the benefits of the TOC process? How did it help you with the design and planning of the YHI?

ZV: It was really useful, actually!

It was particularly helpful to do the TOC at a time when the program wasn't set in stone - we could play around with it and think about what might be the best way to do things. We had the bones of the model before we went through the process, but what it made us do was really think about every aspect of it. And we certainly did adjust it as we went along.

Particularly the housing component - we started off with a pretty standard rental model, and by the end we had a 'no rental' model! The TOC process made us think this through and try to justify that part of the model - but we found that we just couldn't! So we had to change it. To be able to get to the outcomes we were hoping to achieve, it had to be designed a bit differently.

Another benefit is that it enabled us to identify the key elements of the YHI that are really different from other youth housing and homelessness programs, and to articulate those points of difference much better. We have used the high level information from our TOC and Program Logic in the business case to the Board. It's helped us explain more clearly what the program is and what it is going to achieve, and the things that must be included to make sure it succeeds.

It's also been a really solid basis for further work as we continue to plan and develop the program. For instance, monitoring and evaluation can often get overlooked. With Lirata's support we used our TOC and Program Logic as the foundation for a comprehensive M&E Framework. Having this already drafted before we even start piloting the program will be of huge benefit - it will save us a lot of scrambling for data and avoid the risk of measuring things that aren't very useful or outcomes focused.

The TOC process made us think this through and try to justify that part of the model - but we found that we just couldn't! So we had to change it. To be able to get to the outcomes we were hoping to achieve, it had to be designed a bit differently.

KR: What about challenges? Was there anything you found particularly difficult about the TOC process?

ZV: There really wasn't that much that was difficult about it. The process was sound, and we had the time to do it properly. I think it would have been much more difficult to do in a shorter timeframe.

It certainly challenged our thinking - so in that way I guess it was a challenging thing to do, but it was a good challenge! To have to really justify every element of the program - it was a useful thing to have to do.

KR: And finally, Zoe, what advice would you give to any other organisations considering using TOC to help with program design?

ZV: I'd definitely encourage people to do it. Book in the time to do it together as a team, and don't try to rush it.

It is well worth it. It helps to clarify your thinking and consolidate the program's aims, and the ideas that underpin how it will work.

KR: Thanks very much for sharing your TOC experience Zoe!

What next?

Next time you find yourself developing a new program, service model, or pilot project, why not take a few hours to sit down with your team and key stakeholders to develop a Theory of Change?

Whether you bring in an external facilitator, or arrange for someone internal to facilitate (perhaps using Lirata's simple 7-step TOC process), it can really take your design and planning to the next level.

And finally, the usefulness of TOC for program or project design is not limited to brand new initiatives. It can also be a powerful way to review an existing program - whether it be one that has been 'inherited' and you need to understand it better, one that has been running a while and needs fine-tuning, or one that is falling short of achieving its intended outcomes and needs a thorough revamp.


1. Rogers, P.J., Funnell, S.C. 2011. Purposeful Program Theory: Effective Use of Theories of Change and Logic Models. United Kingdom: Wiley.

2. Better Evaluation (n.d.) Develop theory of change / programme theory.

External Resources

The following resources provide guidance around using theory of change for program design:


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Suggested citation

Randall, K. 2021. Theory of Change for Program Design: Take your planning to the next level. Melbourne: Lirata Ltd.

About the author

Photo of Kate Randall
Kate Randall
Kate is a values-driven trainer, consultant and manager with expertise in design, monitoring, evaluation and capacity building.

Assistance with Theory of Change and program design

Lirata provides training in Program Logic, Theory of Change and Monitoring & Evaluation Frameworks. We assist service providers, advocacy organisations and funders to develop theories of change and other forms of program logic. We also help organisations design, plan, implement and improve their programs and their monitoring and evaluation activities.

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

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