What exactly is a theory of change? That’s a question I get a lot in my work with nonprofits. The short answer: It’s just what it sounds like. It’s an organization’s theory about how things are going to change as a result of its efforts. It’s essentially a philosophical road map to guide organizational decision making.
Another question I hear a lot is: How does a theory of change differ from a logic model? That question requires a slightly more nuanced response, because in many ways they’re quite similar. Both identify a target audience. Both convey how what an organization does is meant to effect change. And both are tied to an organization’s overarching mission. The difference is in the detail.
A theory of change explores these concepts at the 30,000-foot level. Its lens is organizational. It aims to articulate the big-picture concepts on which an organization’s work is based.
A logic model zooms in more closely—typically to the program level. While it too identifies a target audience, intended activities, and desired change or benefits (outcomes), it also specifies required resources (inputs) and immediate results (outputs). Additionally, it goes into more detail regarding the particular strategies and outcomes involved with the initiative.
Ideally, an organization’s theory of change and logic models are interconnected. The concepts they respectively convey tie together, with the theory of change serving as the umbrella under which various logic models sit. Each illustrates the organization’s approach and intentions.
Perhaps the third-most common question I hear is: What format should we use for our theory of change? And to that question I give the perhaps-unsatisfying response of: It depends. There are actually many formats for conveying the key concepts in a theory of change. Some organizations opt for a few brief statements. Others prefer a flow chart with graphics. Still others opt for something in between. Which version your organization prefers will likely depend on a number of factors, which will vary case by case. To me, as long as the heart of the content is there, and everyone is on the same page about the message it conveys, the format can be flexible.
In my March 19 webinar, Theory of Change: Why You Need One & How to Develop It, we’ll delve deeper into these nuances. We’ll also explore how and when to develop a theory of change—including which stakeholders should be involved at various stages.