Shooting Blind: Why You Need a Theory of Change

The Anatomy of Strategy

Most organizations undertake some form of planning to guide their activities. Common planning tools include strategic plans, work plans, budgets and perhaps a fund-raising strategy. Strategic plans are like our eyes – they’re about looking forward, identifying a vision and objectives that point towards that vision.


Work plans are about the actual doing, the concrete actions to move towards our vision. Budgets are also a form of planning. Along with fundraising strategies, they help keep the oxygen flowing through our organizations. But one critical part of the anatomy is often missing when we plan – the BRAIN!

Unfortunately, we often forget to apply our best and deepest thinking to planning. Theory of change should be the first step in organizational or programmatic planning because it encourages us to do three things that tend to be missing in traditional strategic planning processes:

  1. Recognize that our own world views and the assumptions that come with them are the greatest assets we have in the planning process;
  2. Work back from the impact we are trying to achieve and set measurable and flexible guideposts to help us determine if we’re making progress or need to make course corrections;
  3. Ask the questions “Why?” and “How?” to ensure we are constantly challenging our assumptions and are choosing the actions that have the greatest chance of success.

Assumptions are the mother of all… GOOD planning processes

We tend to treat planning as some kind of objective exercise as opposed to recognizing that we all bring our own unique worldviews to the table. These are informed by our experiences, what we’ve read, and what we’ve seen work or fail elsewhere. As a result of these worldviews, we make manyassumptions about how change happens, and it’s critical to recognize these so we can test and challenge them. Some of us might be "yoga-lovin’ pacifists" who see a world in which everyone wants to get along. Others might be "rabble-rousing activists" who believe all victories come from a hard-fought battle. Others might be "pointy-hatted scientists or policy wonks" who subscribe to the power of data and reason. In reality, most of us are a blend of all of these worldviews and much more. But in conventional strategic planning, our own personal assumptions stay buried as though admitting to them would be a weakness or unhelpful.

Don’t let planning lead you down the garden path

Traditional strategic planning also tends to reinforce “path dependence”, which means that the decisions we make today are being constrained or limited by the decisions we made in the past even though those past circumstances may no longer be relevant. You’ve probably taken part in strategic planning processes where you basically make a series of hunches on how to improve your organization’s existing activities instead of questioning their continuing relevance and if you should be doing them at all. A better approach is to backcast from your desired impact (as opposed to forecasting from current activities). This means clearly identifying the impact you want to have and then identifying the long-term and short-term outcomes that are most likely to create the conditions for that impact to occur. These outcomes then inform the activities you should be undertaking, which may or may not include current activities.

Why? and How? are your two best friends

In typical strategic planning, we come up with objectives that say things such as communicate our successes to a broader audience, increase our volunteer base, or partner with other organizations. This process typically fails to ask in a meaningful way WHY we need to do these things (in other words, to what ends?) and specify in any real detail HOW we can do them more effectively, and most importantly, HOW we measure if they are working. For example, we need to communicate our successes to a broader audience fails to ask questions such as:

• How do we know they are successes?
• Why are we communicating to those audiences and why do they matter?
• How do we know they will listen?
• How do we know if they are doing anything with that information?

If we move straight to work planning without asking questions like these, many of our assumptions will remain unchallenged and we may end up prioritizing activities that fail to contribute meaningfully to the impact we are trying to achieve.


5 Keys to a Successful Theory of Change

1. Start with personal theories of change – starting off by having your team members share their own personal theories of change (how they think about the world and what they personally believe leads to change) sets the stage for a much more creative discussion and a deeper level of thinking. Often, there are a lot of commonalities between team members, which helps to identify a collective culture and approach but there are also frequently some differences and these are just as important. The respectful challenge of each other’s assumptions during the process helps to build a really robust theory of change.

2. Take time to define your organization’s ultimate impact – think of sending yourself a postcard from 10 years into the future and describing how the world has changed as a result of your organization’s contribution (recognizing that it likely won’t be just your organization that achieves this impact but that you can say there was a significant contribution to a collective effort). Once you have defined your ultimate impact, you can plot the long-term outcomes that would help get you to that impact and then the short-term outcomes that get you towards your long-term goals.

3. Challenge your assumptions – when identifying your long-term and short-term outcomes it’s critical that you challenge your assumptions about why those will lead to your desired impact and keep asking the questions “why” and “how” until you can’t answer them with any more precision. The same questions need to be asked when outlining your short-term and long-term activities. For example, it’s not sufficient to say we will achieve a long-term goal of policy change if we write a report with recommendations on what needs to be in that policy, and then release it. Why do you believe that? And how will you do it? What are your underlying assumptions? First, that someone in government will read the report. Second, that someone will feel compelled to act on it. Why will someone read it? Why would they be compelled?

4. Figure out how to tell if you are on the right path - a good map has landmarks on it that indicate you are on the right path. In other words, you need to have indicators/metrics that show if your organization is making progress towards your outcomes and that you can measure yourself against. If it’s a public campaign, how many people do you think need to sign a petition to have an impact? How many letters need to be sent, and to whom? If it’s a water conservation project, how much water does each person need to save to stop the city from building new water infrastructure or to stop the reservoir from drying up?

5. Recognize that strategy is an adaptive process - an essential tool to go with the map is a compass (or GPS these days) because you need to know where you are on that road and be able to adapt to changes in the road, if there are new speed bumps that will slow down progress or detours that you have to take. For example, there might be a change in government that could change the validity of your assumptions and the likelihood of achieving your short- or long-term outcomes. What this means is that your theory of change is not just about plotting a course and setting sail until you hit land. It is a living document, and a process, that requires you to check-in on it regularly and evaluate if you need to change direction.


ToC Builds Confidence Inside and Outside

A good theory of change process can feel like a form of therapy for people who are working tirelessly day-to-day to achieve social change. It encourages us to think deeply about the problems we’re trying to solve. It creates a safe environment where team members can test and challenge their own and each other’s assumptions. It allows us to set inspiring-yet-tangible goals and then plot out how we can get there. Then it tells us how we’ll know if we’re moving in the right direction. It’s not easy work and requires focus and ongoing commitment. But a good theory of change process should be invigorating, energizing and help solidify a sense of purpose and togetherness within an organization.

A well-communicated theory of change also tells the outside world a story about how your organization or program will achieve change and why it has a high likelihood of success. This is an important benefit. If you can convey that your team has really thought things through and your activities are grounded in a credible understanding of the world around you, you will create much more confidence in the other people you need to help you achieve that change (such as donors, volunteers, supporters, partners etc.)

Tim Morris is a national trainer and advisor for the Freshwater Alliance.

Useful Articles and Resources:

Standford Social Innovation, Six Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid
Ensia, Institue on the Environment, University of Minnesota, The Change We Believe In, But Never Test
GrantCraft, Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation
ActKnowledge, Centre for Theory of Change