The concept of a theory of change has been around for decades but over recent years they have gathered traction in the funding and social investment community.

I often hear at events that the term ‘theory of change’ can be off-putting or even a bit elitist.  For me, a theory of change is really just about developing a clear plan for how you will help to address a social need in your community.

Whatever term you prefer, a theory of change is a great way to clearly articulate the social impact you want to deliver which can help with communications, engaging stakeholders and raising funding or investment.

Here are ten top tips for developing a theory of change:

  1. A theory of change process should always start by mapping the ultimate change or impact that you want to achieve then working backwards to identify outcomes, outputs and activities. It is important that the content of your theory of change is realistic and achievable. You should also note down any assumptions or enablers that will help you to deliver change which may be outside of your control but key to your success.
  2. A good theory of change should include the indicators that you can track to evidence your impact which can help you to learn and improve.
  3. Map out your key stakeholders as they should be involved in developing your theory of change. At a minimum, this should include some of your trustees, staff and service users.
  4. Set aside a good three hours to run a workshop which includes all the key stakeholders that you have identified. Ask all participants to spend some time before the workshop to consider the evidence of need for your work, how you can address it, what external factors may affect it and what is the long-term change you want to deliver?
  5. Make sure that you have flip charts, post-it notes and lots of colourful pens available for the workshop so that everyone can note down their ideas.
  6. At the start of the workshop clearly outline the purpose of a theory of change which is to develop a shared, collective understanding about the social impact you want to make and setting out a clear plan of how you will get there.
  7. Depending on the number of people that you invite to the workshop, ask them to split into small groups of two to three people and give them 15 minutes to write down the long-term change or impact that they want your organisation to deliver. Ask all groups to feedback for 10 minutes and note down their comments on a flip chart. Repeat this process to also develop outcomes, outputs, activities, assumptions and enablers.  
  8. After the workshop assemble all the ideas from participants and develop a draft theory of change. Send round the draft to all participants for comment and incorporate any changes. Consider sending the draft to a wider group of stakeholder or trusted peer organisations as they could also provide some helpful feedback.
  9. Finalise the draft theory of change and communicate it to all your key stakeholders. Put copies of it on the wall in your building and invite visitors to leave comments about it.
  10. Remember to revisit your theory of change regularly to assess how you are performing against it and make any appropriate changes.  

There are some useful resources and further reading about the theory of change process in Social Impact Guidance

By Marcus Hulme, Social Impact Director, Big Society Capital