An Introduction to Theory of Change

Andrea Anderson
January 1, 2005

Roundtable on Community Change, where she focuses on work
related to planning and evaluating community initiatives.
What Is a Theory of Change?
A theory of change (TOC) is the product of a series of criticalthinking
exercises that provides a comprehensive picture of the
early- and intermediate-term changes in a given community that
are needed to reach a long-term goal articulated by the community
(see box for more detail).
What Is the Value of Creating a TOC?
Community initiatives are sometimes planned without an explicit
understanding of the early and intermediate steps required for
long-term changes to occur; therefore, many assumptions about
the change process need to be examined for program planning or
evaluation planning to be most effective. A TOC creates an honest
picture of the steps required to reach a goal. It provides an opportunity
for stakeholders to assess what they can influence, what
impact they can have, and whether it is realistic to expect to reach
their goal with the time and resources they have available.
How Can Initiatives Create a TOC?
Little exists in the way of a methodology
for applying the TOC approach to real-world
situations. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on
Community Change seeks to fill this gap by developing tools and
training materials to help program stakeholders create TOCs; we
developed a process that community-based initiatives can use to
create TOCs.
When I first began to work with groups to create theories of
change, most of us thought that TOC was purely an evaluation
exercise. But the more I worked with program stakeholders, the
more I realized that the exercise of creating a TOC is really an
expectation management tool that can benefit planning as well as
evaluation; I found that just asking people to articulate assumptions
about the change process they hoped to bring about produced
a lot of blank stares, or produced work that wasn?t quite at
the level of critical thinking that we thought was important. So we
came up with a step-by-step process that helps to unpack a group?s
thinking about how to bring about desired changes and how to go
about documenting that change in a systematic fashion.
What Is the Process of Creating a TOC?
The first step is for stakeholders to be clear about what they want
to produce through their initiative. We find group members often
have very different ideas about what they are working toward.
The next step is for stakeholders to think about all of the preconditions
?the building blocks or requirements?that must exist in
order to reach their long-term goal. They then need to consider, in
light of this big picture perspective, which of these preconditions
(otherwise known as outcomes) they will take responsibility for
Usually there is just a subset of outcomes that they can influence.
Some preconditions are beyond the sphere of influence of
any single initiative, such as needing a stable economy to produce
enough jobs to reach an employment goal. Others may be beyond
one program?s influence, but stakeholders could suggest ways that
a particular program may be able to influence other programs
to act, or they could identify areas for strategic collaboration or
partnerships. For example, a precondition for a school readiness
initiative might be that all children are properly immunized and
healthy before they enter school. A small initiative couldn?t influence
this precondition, but it may be able to help bring it about
through collaboration with others in the community who could
directly influence this key precondition for success (see box for a
summary of the steps).
What?s the Difference Between a TOC and a Logic Model?
A logic model is a tactical explanation of the process of producing
a given outcome. It outlines the program inputs and activities,
the outputs they will produce, and the connections between
those outputs and the desired outcomes. Alternatively, a TOC,
as we define it, is a strategic picture of the multiple interventions
required to produce the early and intermediate outcomes that are
What is a theory of change?
A theory of change (toc) is a tool for developing solutions to
complex social problems. A basic toc explains how a group
of early and intermediate accomplishments sets the stage
for producing longrange
results. A more complete toc articulates
the assumptions about the process through which
change will occur and specifies the ways in which all of the
required early and intermediate outcomes related to achieving
the desired longterm
change will be brought about and
documented as they occur.
steps to create a theory of change
. identify a longterm
2. conduct ?backwards mapping? to identify the preconditions
necessary to achieve that goal.
3. identify the interventions that your initiative will perform
to create these preconditions.
4. develop indicators for each precondition that will be used
to assess the performance of the interventions.
5. Write a narrative that can be used to summarize the various
moving parts in your theory.2
. Adapted from Anderson, A. (2005). The community builder?s approach
to theory of change: A practical guide to theory and development. new york:
the Aspen institute roundtable on community change.
2. Adapted from
continued on page 19
? ?
preconditions of reaching an ultimate goal.
Once a precondition (or outcome) has been identified through
the TOC process, a logic model can be used to explain how that
outcome will be produced. Thus, one TOC could actually be
linked to a number of logic models, because a logic model could
be constructed to illustrate how to produce each outcome in the
TOC map. The TOC summarizes work at a strategic level, while
a logic model would be used to illustrate the tactical, or programlevel,
understanding of the change process. A Microsoft Power-
Point presentation on the TOC website, www.theoryofchange.
org, explains this issue in more detail.
How Are Concepts of TOCs and Logic Models Evolving?
During the early to mid-1990s, funders began increasing their
emphasis on outcomes and accountability. As a result, people
began paying more attention to TOCs and logic models and often
created their own definitions of these concepts to meet their
needs. Because people are increasingly seeing the value of doing
this kind of work and because it?s not a ?branded? idea, there are
more definitions of these concepts now than there were 10 years
ago. My concern is not that the field decide to do it one way, but
that people use the exercise of creating a theory of change to ask
hard questions about why they expect certain interventions to
bring about the outcomes they seek, to question their assumptions
about how the change process will unfold, and to be clear about
how they?re selecting outcomes to focus on.
Instead of thinking about TOC as the ?magic bullet? that can
solve all of their planning and evaluation challenges, I hope that
people will use TOC to learn how to ask fundamentally different
?and much more interesting?questions from those we are
used to asking about any initiative. The advice I would give to
somebody coming at TOC for the first time is to be open-minded
about the extent to which it can help them to be better strategic
thinkers throughout all of their work, and not to think of it as just
a planning or evaluation tool.





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