Adapted from The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change: A Practical Guide to Theory Development, The Aspen Institute, Roundtable on Community Change

A Theory of Change maps our understanding of how social change happens along a pathway, thereby helping us envision the steps necessary for reaching our long-term goal or goals. Having a Theory of Change can help us to plan interventions that support the change we desire, and can also help us avoid mistakes in implementation.

There are, according to The Community Builder’s Approach to the Theory of Change, four basic components to a Theory of Change:

  1. A pathway of change that illustrates the relationship between a variety of outcomes that are each thought of as preconditions of the long-term goal.
  2. Indicators that are specific enough that tracking them will help us to measure success.
  3. Interventions that will be used to bring about each of the preconditions on the pathway, and at each step of the pathway.
  4. Assumptions that explain the key guiding assumptions that tie the theory together.

Developing a theory of change for public engagement can be difficult, as sometimes our long-term outcomes, and the preconditions for achieving them, can be difficult to measure (for instance, changes in people’s perceptions of the world). For this reason, it is especially important to articulate our goals clearly and think about how our activities and program support them.

Task 1: Identify the Long-Term Outcome

It’s important to begin with a clear understanding of what the desired long-term outcome of our work is. Often, we take for granted that we are all working towards similar goals, but you might be surprised to find that people working on the same project may have different ideas about the long-term outcomes. The long-term outcome needs to be specific – having a “mega-goal” (like “make the world a better place”) is not specific enough for a Theory of Change.

Task 2: Develop a Pathway of Change

The next step is developing the pathway of results which lead backwards from the long-term outcome.  This can be the most time-consuming part of the process. The pathway should not yet address your activities or interventions, but show the results or changes in state that are necessary before the long-term outcome can be achieved. You might think of these things as prerequisites, ingredients or building blocks of change. It can be very helpful to do “backwards mapping” by starting at the end, and working backwards.

Task 3: Operationalize Outcomes

The next step is to develop indicators for knowing when or how your outcomes are achieved. For each result or outcome, we should ask, “What evidence will we have that this has been achieved?” It’s important that we use indicators that really reflect what we are trying to achieve, not just what data we have access to. [More information on indicators can be found in “P: Define the scope of your activities and identify the target audience”, and Aspen Centre’s A Community Builder’s Approach to a Theory of Change.

Task 4: Define Interventions

Participants should next think about what activities and programs they can plan in order to support each outcome. Note that usually one “mega-program” cannot address all of the outcomes, and different interventions may be required for different outcomes.

This step should not involve detailed program-planning, but identifying in broad strokes what activities or interventions can support the development of the indicators.

Task 5: Articulate Assumptions

Finally, participants should think about unspoken assumptions that have influenced their planning. For example, why do I believe x is necessary for y? Why do I believe that x will lead to y? These may surface during other steps in the process, and you can collect them to discuss in this final step.

Note that a Theory of Change is always a work in progress. Testing, revisiting, re-evaluating and re-thinking are what give the Theory of Change its power.  Building the indicators into your evaluation framework and process of data collection will help ensure you have the information to assess whether the Theory works in practice and/or how it can be revised.