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Theory of Change: is this the new and better way to manage impact?

Impact. Planned, unplanned, positive or negative, it is a concern of any organization or actor that aims to make the world a better place. But, how do we go about conceiving and realizing impact that generates long-lasting future change, the ultimate goal of any intervention? Should we aim for maximum impact by following the principles of effective giving[1], or should we contribute with our talents, expertise and passion simply in whichever way we can? For us, young development professionals, such core questions related to impact and creating change keep buzzing in our minds on a daily basis. Luckily, the third AMID module about impact management kicked off with a lecture that provided some answers, but also a whole new set of questions.  AMID Theory of Change

The first and most important message of the lecturer Edith Kroese, managing director of Avance Impact, was to make us aware of how important strategic impact planning and measurement really is. Regardless of our beliefs at the individual level about how to best go about creating societal change, it is crucial for all organisations with this purpose to sit down, have an open dialogue and delve deeper into the toughest questions. What is the deepest impact that we are really aiming to achieve as an organisation? How do we know if impact was created as a result of our interventions? How do we know what actually generates change? To help us answer these tricky queries, there is a tool that might come in handy: a Theory of Change (or ToC). Formulating ToCs appears to have become a surging trend among various organisations and companies in the development field and beyond, but what it exactly entails and when it is actually useful can still remain somewhat elusive. In this blog, we attempt to find some answers.

  1. What exactly is a Theory of Change? Can we define it?

Developing ToCs for organizations and programmes has been a fairly recent innovation, following a trend (and decline) of Logical Frameworks. For any team that aspires to put together a ToC, the first important question is to give it a definition. That means - delve into existing literature, manuals and guidebooks so as “not to reinvent the wheel”. However, partly because it’s a new way of thinking and partly because the ToCs are individual and purposefully carved to fit the purpose of a specific context, the definitions vary to a great extent.

One clear definition has been provided in an elaborate guide for compiling ToCs by Hivos (find it here), but that one is accompanied by two more definitions:

For Hivos, theory of change is a process-oriented approach to analysing the complex systems in which we and our partners and allies work, and for planning actions we think will influence parts of the system in a positive way. The process helps us navigate in unpredictable and complex processes and to track changes in the system to which our interventions may have contributed.

Theory of change is an ongoing process of reflection to explore change and how it happens - and what that means for the part we play in a particular context, sector and/or group of people. (Cathy James, Comic Relief Theory of Change Review, 2011)

Every programme is packed with beliefs, assumptions and hypotheses about how change happens – about the way humans work, or organisations, or political systems, or ecosystems. Theory of change is about articulating these many underlying assumptions about how change will happen in a programme. (Patricia Rogers, in ‘Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development’, Isabel Vogel, 2012)


The conclusion - one over-encompassing definition of ToC is hard to devise, but it is nevertheless crucial to have the discussion within the team, and agree on one that fits the objectives, lingo and strategy of the particular organisation. In fact, this is not restricted to the definition of the ToC, but also applies to the various components therein. As emphasized by Edith, it is a valuable exercise to discuss and agree upon the meaning behind each keyword that a ToC will eventually contain (“Process”? “Change”? “Impact”? “Outcome”?). If you take the time as a team to analyse the abstract concepts and agree on the definitions, you can make sure that everyone feels connected and aligned, and will be able to use the ToC for its intended purpose. The next question then emerges..

2. What is the purpose of a Theory of Change? And how useful is it, really?

So, a ToC is not a theory that would dictate and precisely define how impact will be created, but rather one that we develop and adjust ourselves over time. In this light, it serves the purpose of portraying our evolving perception of reality. The practise of drawing the change process with boxes, lines and arrows forces us to clarify hypotheses about how we believe that change will happen, and helps us to reveal the conscious and unconscious assumptions behind the various steps along the way. Other key points of the purpose of a ToC (either at the organizational or program level) arguably include the following:

  • Developing a ToC can help you clarify what exactly lies within your sphere of influence and what does not.
  • A Toc can contribute to understanding whether the impact that you aim to realize is a direct result from your actions, or whether your role is more indirect, enabling others to generate impact. 
  • A ToC can serve as a basis to effectively measure and validate the intended impact.
  • A ToC can be used to communicate your strategy of impact both internally and externally.

However, we could go one level deeper and ask the question of whether and when  a Theory of Change is actually useful in practice. Debating this question in a group of young development professionals quickly leads to the discussion of context and what lens we ought to take. Does a ToC work for  highly complex, or even chaotic development contexts? Or would it only deliver a confusing web of abstract ideas and broad objectives? Although a meta view could help to reveal wider effects that were not obvious before, it might not really help to assess whether our intervention actually contributes to change. As Craig Valters (2013) puts it, we ought to be cautious that the ToC does not become a “convincing story, rather than a more embedded learning and reflection process on assumptions, values and strategic choices”. We should also ensure that we do not merely seek for evidence to build ourselves a predefined ToC.

What is more, if we aim to use a ToC to tackle a complicated problem for which we hope to find a clear-cut solution, don’t we oversimplify and lose sight of wider effects that might form risks or opportunities on the pathways to reach our ultimate goal? An easy made pitfall is that we do not reflect on a change in power dynamics, or that we are not aware of how local people see change happen (Valters, 2014). Furthermore, regarding the ToC as a communication tool raises the concern that it will merely be used to fulfil donor requirements (Valters, 2013), which leads him to suggest that in donor relations, the ToC should be seen “as an opportunity to open up a space for honesty and critical reflection”. What is more, as long as donors such as governments hold on to a results-based mind-set rather than valuing the exploration and explanation of change, coming up with intricate ToCs to trigger critical reflection is of little value.

Another point of concern as to whether ToCs are useful for a critical reflection on how change will happen  is that the process is highly dependent on the political context for which the theory is developed. In other words, serious critical reflection will be unlikely to take place in an environment where challenging the political status quo is not accepted or could have serious implications.

For more critical thoughts on using ToCs, take a look here.

3. Finally - what are our lessons learned?

Let’s draw up some conclusions!

  • Drawing up a programme or organization specific ToC helps to encourage critical reflection among colleagues, donors, partners, stakeholders, beneficiaries etc, which will eventually lead to developing a well-recognized and accepted impact strategy.
  • However, as with any new and popular trend, we need to make sure that everyone involved in its design grasps the ToC’s diverse components, agrees on their definitions, and understands the added value of the ToC itself (especially in comparison with other similar products), so that it would not become an empty buzzword for the same old change document (“Logic Framework in disguise”, according to Edith), nor a good-looking  communication tool to please our donors.
  • All in all, the most important lesson is that the ToC is a learning process: it allows you to actually grow and develop as an organization, for going through a set of tough and deep questions will help you to understand and to reflect on your ideas of change and on the underlying assumptions that you might not even be aware of. It also has the potential to provide you with insights into your actual spheres of influence to help you understand where exactly you can make an impact.

So go ahead, start reflecting and.. Have fun! 

[1] Ideas expressed by the economist Kellie Liket, among others: find out more about “effective giving” here.


Written by Jolijn Hooghwinkel (FNV) and Maria Sakarias (Masterpeace) on the lecture 'Theory of Change' by Edith Kroese, Avance-Impact