The theory of change

A theory of change aims to promote social change through a specific methodology of planning, conducting, and evaluating a project. It could be rephrased as “the philosophy you believe will make a difference when it comes to tackling a certain challenge”. 

For many charities, social enterprises and any company concerned with philanthropy, it is a useful tool for understanding the difference that an organisation makes or intends to make. Doing good isn’t just about the intention, but the meaningful results that this activity has. A theory of change helps you to link the two together.

Socially conscious organisations such as charities and social enterprises are increasingly using this mode of thinking as a way to plan activities. They start with an idea of a desired change for society, why this is needed, and plan how it will come about. Different organisations might approach the same goals through different activities. For example, if a charity wants to improve the health of children, they might look at nutrition, family conditions, or activities at schools. They might choose to educate families, or they might choose to lobby the food industry. Different approaches, but the same preferable impact. The theory of change always includes a plan of how to measure and evaluate what works. It helps us to learn and to do better.

It also help donors to understand why things are done as they are and where the resources are spent. Essentially, it’s about understanding how change actually happens, and putting in mechanisms to bring that change about. Sometimes the results can be also negative. If the origins of the challenges are interpreted incorrectly, actions estimated to be helpful can end up making the situation worse. However this is not a negative thing. The whole point of creating a theory of change is to understand what doesn’t work, which comes from learning through these experiences.

When an organisation has thought about their theory of change it shows that they have looked at what they are doing and can prove the difference that it will make in society. A theory of change gives us useful information to avoid non-effective methods the next time. Donors must also accept that when addressing difficult problems, the learning curve, is unavoidable. With a well thought out plan and validation, the curve can be steeper and time span shorter. Donors should be more concerned about an organisation that cannot present their change plan with logical steps of progression, than being disappointed at a charity which learned and developed their methods along the way.

whatimpact.com gives all charities, social enterprises, grant makers and companies the opportunity to present their anticipated plans to work towards making a social impact through their profiles. There are a number of interesting approaches organisations on our site have taken to address societal, environmental and cultural challenges. Ask questions, positively challenge the organisations you are interested in supporting. Make yourself part of the change.

Here’s a great article in The Guardian for more on this topic.

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