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In Theory & In Practice: Best Practices for a Theory of Change

BY: BEN ROMERO, Advisory Services Associate

Not since “.org” has a buzzword spread through the non-profit world with such saturation and expediency. You hear it exalted by funders, muttered by staff members, shouted in the middle of the night by E.D.’s sitting straight up in bed. Yes, I’m talking about those three famous words: “Theory of Change.”

At trepwise, we live and breathe strategic frameworks. In the strategic planning process, one of our most important value-adds is providing frameworks that our clients can apply to screen everything they do and distill strategic priorities. One of the tools we use to untangle those knots is the Theory of Change.

I recently spoke with Maggie Pullen, one of our advisors with an extensive background in non-profit organizational development, on best practices regarding theories of change, how trepwise uses the tool, and some common misconceptions.

1. It’s not built in a day. 

trepwise impact consultingDue to its frequent presentation in a final streamlined form, some assume a Theory of Change simply means a one-page document (possibly two) that outlines different facets of a non-profit’s strategic priorities. It’s a colorful graphic, a flowering tree that also doubles as a path to alleviate hunger in society – built in a day. Others feel that a theory of change can stand in for a longer strategic plan. It’s the same elements, right?

In fact, a rigorous theory of change is not merely a document, but a process and a framework. It includes (but is not limited to) the problem, opportunity, the desired greater impact, target groups, strategies and outcomes. The designed, public-facing document will come eventually. But that is typically after months of working with key stakeholders to develop your organizational approach.

2. First things first, identify the problem.

In order to understand how to create impactful change, it is critical to start at the beginning. Why was the organization founded? Why is it needed? Why should it exist? Beginning with these questions will establish a solid foundation to understand how the organization creates change.

Following the definition of the problem, organizations should focus on defining outcomes. By rooting the framework in problems and outcomes, it should avoid simply codifying the existing strategies. Instead, the development process should explore all potential avenues to achieve the desired outcomes, challenging assumptions along the way.  This framework became so widely adopted partially because it involves such an analytical attention to how an organization creates “change.” No stone or current strategy should be left unturned.

3. Context is Everything 

trepwise strategic planningOrganizations operate in an ever-changing web of relationships with other individuals and organizations. For anyone who is familiar with trepwise, they know this an operating principle we have. Whether it’s our vision or core value of “partnerships”, we strive to understand our role within a larger context. This also influences how we use and apply this framework.

A theory of change should encompass how the organization relates to the wider ecosystem in which it operates. As a first step to do this successfully for our strategic planning clients, trepwise conducts a series of stakeholder consultations including interviews and focus groups with everyone from the Executive Director to program recipients. It’s critical that all those who interact with the organization- whether it’s staff, board, or key community partners- feel listened to as a part of the process. This isn’t just about checking the “community engagement” box. We have found that staff on the front lines typically have some of the clearest insights into program effectiveness, and external partners can provide fresh perspectives that ultimately catalyze new approaches.

Building a Theory of Change can be daunting. But remember, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The Theory of Change is just a new way of combining familiar elements of the Strategic Planning process. Its reputation may proceed it, but it’s a useful organizational tool that helps speak to both internal and external stakeholders (read: funders). Stay tuned for more insights in the coming weeks. Thanks to Maggie for her wisdom and general frustration with those who throw around “Theory of Change” like it’s the trendiest thing since sliced bread.