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A Theory of Everything

"There is nothing as practical as good theory." -Carol Weiss

Caitlin Sislin Caitlin Sislin

You're probably familiar with the idea of a theory of change.

Maybe you’re aware that it’s important to have one, but you don’t know the first thing about how to create it.

Maybe your organization has already invested time and resources into crafting a theory of change and having it graphically rendered.

Or maybe you can’t imagine taking time away from your actual work to sit around and theorize about it.

While I agree that the process of creating a theory of change can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, and it’s easy for such a process to turn into just another series of dull meetings –

I think for groups working on the long arc of transformation, whose efforts don’t lend themselves to easy quantification, a theory of change is actually an incredibly useful tool.

For our purposes, that’s because the theory of change can serve as the foundation for measuring and communicating your impact.

As a passionate advocate, activist, leader – you’re probably familiar with the tension between the earth-shifting, transformative results you’re calling forth, and the insistence from funders (and others) on tidy growth trajectories and pat conclusions.

So you have to pick data to track and measure. It can feel random, disjointed, and not at all indicative of the results you’re actually achieving.

Who cares about how many people visited your website, when you’re actually interested in the enthusiasm of the kids you teach, or the depth of soulful connection among community members?

In the midst of it all, a theory of change can provide meaning for your measurements. It can create cohesion between data and the big picture.

As Carson Saunders, GuideStar's Business Intelligence Architect, says: “We have so many data sources and data points, I can’t even count them anymore. When someone asks you to figure out what you need to measure, it can be very difficult. Our theory of change helps us narrow in on our vast collection of data, and move forward.”

The theory of change gives you a road-map.

It tells you, your community, and your supporters: this is where we are now, and this is how we’re going to get to our goal. Here’s the causal chain of outcomes that are going to lead to our big vision, and here’s what we’re going to do at every step along that causal chain to make progress.

And then, the road-map becomes your dashboard.

You can use your theory of change to identify real-world indicators of change – and then use those to figure out which data to track.

You’re not spending time, as Mizmun Kusairi, GuideStar's Vice President of Strategy says, over measuring, or measuring 100 of the wrong things. If it doesn’t relate back to the framework, it’s meaningless.”

Now, before we jump to draw our circles and boxes on the whiteboard, let me affirm that the theory of change idea is complex and fraught.

As Sean Stannard-Stockton writes, “the theory of change makes sense in a static landscape, where you can learn more and more about what works and what doesn’t and finally craft the perfect theory, but fails in a dynamic landscape, such as social change, where what you learned on your last trip might not apply this time.”

We’re all moving through very dynamic landscapes. One size definitely does not fit all here. The very idea of causality is suspect -- suggesting that we're working in some kind of vacuum, where we can trace "our outcomes" to "our actions."

The truth is, we're inextricably interlinked in ways we can't possibly define, or even see. The context for our work is a rich, ceaseless, living web of connection.

But I’d say that despite its limitations, the theory of change gives us a pretty good proxy – a much-needed tool for defining, tracking and measuring our impact in a world where “impact” has countless definitions, and one group’s impact is inextricably interwoven with many different external forces.

The theory of change enables you to define your world.

It shows anyone who looks at it, what you’re doing, what’s most important, and what it’s all leading towards – according to your vision.

And more importantly, theories of change give you a starting place to test whether your work is actually accomplishing its intended goals. A wise, robust theory of change will evolve over time, as it becomes embodied in the implementation of the work.

Jennifer Ito, Project Manager of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, writes of “the importance of having space to try, test, and transform organizational TOCs. When grants are due, TOCs are often required upfront. But more aptly, TOCs change and evolve with time and with use; this is the heart of praxis – of taking something out of theory and seeing how it works on the ground.”

Your theory of change is not a static road-map; it’s growing and changing alongside you, as you learn from your work.

Over time, your theory of change demonstrates how people can come together to really shift things in this world.

Along the way, it’s a powerful framework for teaching the people who support, ally with, and fund you, why they should pay close attention to what you’re measuring.


Please know that my thoughts here only barely scratch the surface of the good thinking around this tool. Check out Paul Brest's article, The Power of Theories of Change, or Matthew Forti's piece on pitfalls to avoid, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, to start with. And check out GuideStar's most recent quarterly Impact Call, for more from CEO Jacob Harold on GuideStar's theory of change and impact.

Caitlin Sislin is a strategic consultant to nonprofit organizations and philanthropies across the U.S. She helps develop and implement foundation and individual donor fundraising strategies; facilitates visioning sessions, theory of change processes, staff retreats, and other convenings; and advises on communications across a variety of channels. Caitlin began her career as an environmental attorney. As the North America Program Director for Women's Earth Alliance, she built and directed a legal advocacy network linking pro bono attorneys with grassroots environmental justice activists. Caitlin is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Berkeley School of Law.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice