Why bother with a theory of change?



David Pritchard

David Pritchard

As a recent guest on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs, Martin Sheen described why he is a social activist. He said that he never expects to change anyone’s mind through his activism. He does what he does because he has to, it is right. That is not enough for me, and I suspect, not enough for many who work in the charitable sector. There is nothing wrong with being motivated by principle and values alone. But I imagine most of us need to make a difference. If I was not making a difference, I would go somewhere else that pays more!

As an alternative to acting solely out of principle, at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) we advise our clients about the importance of having a clear, explicit theory of change. Such a theory of change describes how what you do should lead to the impact that you want to have.

This sounds rudimentary. But we are often surprised at how many clients have not articulated a coherent theory of change. Some have to be convinced of the need for one.
The benefits are clear. A theory of change helps identify organizational priorities and inform strategic choices. Understanding what makes a difference distinguishes what an organization has to do to achieve an impact from what is nice to do.

It also helps staff and stakeholders work towards a common purpose, promoting collaboration for shared goals and objectives. Having different views in an organization is healthy. But too many differences can lead to inaction or, worse, different parts of the organization frustrating or undermining each other.

Crucially, a theory of change also helps an organization use new data and evidence to assess and improve its effectiveness. One client we have been advising on measurement provides advisory services to people who are financially stressed. The organization contacted a sample of service users who had received one-off telephone support rather than more intensive support. They expected that those who received one-off support would have found that was all they needed. In fact they found that people who received minimal support often did not follow the advice given and ended up with poor outcomes. The charity is now reassessing their business practices based on this new information.

But developing a theory of change can be difficult. Many charities start by responding with a strong vision to a clear need and grow organically and opportunistically as the environment and funder priorities change. It can be challenging and frustrating – and may seem pointless – trying to weave apparently disparate programmes together into a single causal model. This was my experience early in my career trying to make sense of how our work with young people and families in Northern Ireland was somehow meant to promote ‘peace’. It was a lofty aim, but it took a big leap of faith (in the absence of evidence) to get from our programmes to this nirvana.

Making the theory of change explicit can also create discomfort and tensions. People working in the charitable sector often are, admirably, passionate and committed. Questioning whether what they do is the best way to achieve organizational goals can be threatening. Colleagues can find themselves strongly disagreeing with each other. One forceful chief executive in a theory of change workshop we ran squashed dialogue with his forceful views. Maybe that helps short-term planning, but it did not seem conducive to increasing the organization’s impact over the long term.

As yet, we only have anecdotal evidence to show that charities that have a clear and logical theory of change are more effective than those that do not. Producing more robust evidence will go onto our list of future research.

David Pritchard is Head of Measurement and Evaluation at NPC. Email DPritchard@philanthropycapital.org

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