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Keeping Nonprofits on Course

I’ve been asked by several readers to describe “theory of change.” So I decided to go to one of the experts, Jacob Harold, program officer at the Hewlett Foundation. Jacob is a frequent writer and speaker on the subject and recently conducted a free Webinar for GuideStar. Jacob has also been very helpful to me personally in thinking through GuideStar’s long-range strategy.

I’m sure there are a few readers already thinking that what we need is more action and less academic talk. I like action, too. But it’s easy to create action. Ask any nonprofit employee, and they’ll tell you they are overworked and drowning in opportunity. But are they doing the right work? And what results are they getting? That’s why I think it’s worth the effort to spend some time thinking about your organization’s “theory of change.” Think of it as a map that helps keep you on course and focused on creating results.

Here’s a summary of our recent discussion on “theory of change.”

1. What is a thumbnail definition of “theory of change”?

A theory of change is your understanding of what has to happen to reach your goal.
Almost every action has a theory of change. You reach out to turn a doorknob because you believe that’s part of what has to happen to open a door.

2. In your experience, do most nonprofits have a theory of change?

Most every nonprofit has a theory of change—even if it’s just implicit. For something simple like opening a door, there’s no need to write down your theory of change. But if you want to tackle something complicated like homelessness or global warming, it becomes more important to specifically articulate why you think a particular approach might work.

3. What makes a good theory of change?

Where possible, a theory of change should be based on hard scientific evidence. That doesn’t mean that every nonprofit has to go out and do a lot of research. But nonprofit leaders should know if there’s evidence to back up their approach. If there is evidence that an approach doesn’t work (like abstinence-only education), then you can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Reinventing the wheel is bad enough. What’s worse is reinventing the square wheel.
There are some rare cases where a problem or an intervention is so new that there may not be a lot of research available. In those cases, though, having a theory of change is just as important—if not more—because it will force you to make your assumptions explicit.

4. Can you give a few examples?

There aren’t as many good examples floating around as I’d like, but here are a few thoughts re some that are already available:
Probably the best example is from EMCF: http://www.emcf.org/how/theoryofchange.htm.
Another good one is for the Harlem Children’s Zone: http://www.tc.edu/i/a/document/9857_ExecutiveSummaryHCZ09.pdf.
There’s a “theory of change and a theory of action” for the Harvard Family Research project: http://www.hfrp.org/evaluation/the-evaluation-exchange/issue-archive/professional-development/theory-of-action-in-practice.

5. How is this different from a logic model?

A logic model is a more specific description of what you do and what will result from it. Many organizations might use the same theory of change—but a logic model is specific to one organization’s work. Logic models are often structured as a big arrow from inputs (what you use) to activities (what you do) to outputs (what happens) to outcomes (what lasts).
Ultimately the words are less important than these three basic rules: 1) stay focused on results, 2) be clear about what you’re doing and why, and 3) have a way to get feedback to find out if you’re successful.

6. What are some resources you can suggest for those wanting to learn more?

One resource, no surprise here, is http://www.theoryofchange.org/. There’s also a good exchange on the Huffington Post between Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest and Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy here. In 2004, the consulting firm Bridgespan published a seminal article on this topic in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Zeroing in on Impact.”

(Disclosure: the Hewlett Foundation has funded GuideStar, Bridgespan, SSIR, and http://www.theoryofchange.org.)

Topics: Communications