A theory of change is a set of testable propositions about how a program or policy affects conditions or behaviors. An effective theory of change describes the process by which change is produced, and articulates how and why a set of activities is expected to influence an intended target. Understanding what outcomes are expected and why they are expected is the basis for establishing evaluation goals.
More precise theories of change can lead to higher levels of confidence in subsequent evaluation findings. A properly developed theory of change can demonstrate that a program’s intervention, rather than some outside condition, leads to the desired change. Funding decisions are also more likely to be favorable when there is a clearly articulated problem and suitable interventions are being employed to address the problem.
A theory of change should be based on research and best practices, with strategies designed to address a specific problem in a specific context. Connell and Klem (2000) provide a list of four criteria for judging the quality of a theory of change. First, the logic behind why an intervention should work must be plausible. Second, there must be enough resources to make a theory of change doable. Third, the actual change that results from an intervention must be testable. Finally, the desired results must be important and significant enough to make a theory of change meaningful.
Theories of change should be developed in collaboration with people who are knowledgeable about the problem, the program, and the organizational setting. The most useful theories of change are developed by systematically organizing what is known about a particular problem and the goals that a program hopes to accomplish. There should be a clear conception of the problem a program seeks to address. The chosen intervention, as well as the rationale behind that intervention, should be based on the clearly defined statement of the problem.
Theories of change can be developed following four basic steps:
- State the problem that needs to be addressed.
- Identify the program’s goals and objectives in addressing the problem.
- Specify what actions will be taken to achieve those goals and objectives.
- Clarify the rationale for taking those actions.
It’s the Tomatoes
Connell, James P. and Adena M. Klem (2000). You can get there from here: Using a theory of change approach to plan urban education reform. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 11(1): 93-120.
Coryn, Chris L.S., Lindsay A. Noakes, Carl D. Westine, and Daniela C. Schroter (2011). A systematic review of theory-driven evaluation practice from 1990 to 2009. American Journal of Evaluation, 32(2): 199-226.
Other Resources: Center for Theory of Change is a non-profit organization established to promote quality standards and best practice for the development and implementation of Theory of Change. The Policy Impact Toolkit provides a set of tools for developing a theory of change.