More than jargon: using the tools we all like to talk about


Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

We were excited to read Angela Kail’s recent post on New Philanthropy Capital’s theory of change (TOC) report, in particular because we were preparing to co-facilitate a session on using theory of change at the recent Pacific Northwest Global Donors Conference. Our session sought to make a case for using a theory of change in the best possible way, which (in the humble opinion of the authors) is whatever manner makes most sense for the user.

At the conference, we each shared our experiences with theory of change and then asked the session participants to work in small groups on one member’s theory of change (for their philanthropy, a project or an organization). As Kail noted in her post, this exercise made clear that ‘the value lies as much in the process as in the result itself’. Putting to paper one’s plans, ideas and assumptions helps both clarify intentions and bring out key questions to ensure that we are truly planning for change, not just hoping to get there on the genius of our good intentions.

Two tales of theory of change in action

When Hilda began the theory of change process for a foundation client, it was purely by chance. The foundation had decided to launch a new program area, but the board members felt they needed something very explicit to help them talk about what the foundation would and would not fund in this area. In a parallel event, this client’s grantees had asked for more detailed information on what the foundation’s specific outcomes were, so that they could help the foundation achieve them. So Hilda developed a detailed theory of change that helped the board and staff talk about this new area of funding and also enabled grantees be more involved in the larger process of what the foundation hoped to achieve in the short and long term. The client approved the theory of change and Hilda now works with board and grantees to assure its implementation and monitor the progress towards the outcomes the TOC identified.

When IDEX started thinking about its theory of change last year, they already had strong monitoring mechanisms in place for feedback and data collection, reporting and sharing information which had been developed with partner input. So IDEX decided to ask the question, ‘How do we know this partnership model is really working?’. IDEX hired an external evaluator who picked a theory of change-based method as the most suitable to test assumptions and impact. Through an easily accessible online survey and one-on-one interviews, the evaluation yielded a great deal of rich information indicating that partners gave a strong endorsement of IDEX’s model of authentic partnership and that there was strong support for the values that IDEX embodies and personifies. Results confirmed that partners consider IDEX’s model critical to building stronger alliances and linkages to other social change organizations and movements in their local areas and internationally. All of this learning now influences IDEX’s next phase of its own development and focus, and Vini found this approach to be particularly helpful to IDEX since it allowed the organization to examine its role in addressing root causes of social problems and for testing the power dynamics inherent within the grantmaking relationship.

Sometimes the process is uncomfortable

When participants engaged in this process during our session, there was clearly great interest and lots of active contribution to the exercise, but the process was lengthy and there was lots of back-and-forth within the audience and many questions for the facilitators. In reflecting on the session, members commented that the questions about the strategy and outcomes of work that they are passionately committed to seemed like criticism at some points, and the process forced them to use a different lens to analyze their vision of social change. The purpose of this type of group exercise was certainly not to criticize anyone’s strategy, but to encourage the type of questioning that engages donors more meaningfully in their philanthropy and that helps invest them in the work of their grantee partners. By understanding their own motivations and expectations, donors can better articulate grantmaking ideas with their grantees and form partnerships that allow stakeholders to achieve common goals.

Theories of change: everything and nothing

‘Take a little time to review the literature on theories of change and you’ll discover, as I did, that theories of change are everything and they are nothing,’ Albert Ruesga notes in his essay Philanthropy’s Albatross: Debunking Theories of Change. This is sad, but often true. It also doesn’t need to be the case. Our session participants wondered about the name, the format and even the cost in time and dollars of undertaking a theory of change process. All of these questions are valid and must be considered when deciding to engage in such a project. A theory of change should not be a burden, or more work than the outcomes it would produce.

We encouraged our session participants to embrace the idea that a basic map of their vision and some core steps for how to get there should help them move forward, can take various forms (narrative, diagram, matrix, etc.) and can really be called whatever seems to best fit their work. And if this doesn’t help a donor move the work along, then they shouldn’t do it.

The key to making the process work for you

At the end of our session we asked participants to pick a side and argue a defence of their position on using a TOC. One side of the room was for members who believed that some form of a theory of change would help them in their work as donors, while on the other side participants stated that the process was a drain of time and resources with little value to add to their work. Both arguments are equally valid depending on what a donor needs and how they chose to invest their funds.

Theories of change, nonetheless, can be especially useful to those new to the game, perhaps a bit less so to the experienced leaders who were the focus of Ruesga’s article. The key is to make the theory of change what you and your work need it to be, not the other way around.

Hilda Vega is senior advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd

Vini Bhansali is executive director of IDEX

Tagged in: Grantee relationships IDEX Pacific Northwest Global Donors theory of change

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