A theory of change is a valuable starting place if you want to understand the relationship between the social problem you are addressing, the change you want to make, and the strategies you’re using to achieve the results you want.
What is a theory of change?
Creating a theory of change helps you to understand and convey the way your program works. It encourages cultural workers and key stakeholders to collectively play out and test their assumptions about how a program operates and contributes to social change. It isn’t exactly a program plan, but it helps you design more realistic program plans and evaluation. According to the excellent resource written by Craig McGarvey and published by GrantCraft, Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation, a theory of change takes a wide view of a desired change and helps you to articulate exactly what propositions and assumptions you’re testing, and therefore what you should be assessing in your evaluation plan.
Drawing from GrantCraft’s “Mapping Change,” the term is used to describe "anything from a broadly stated outline of change to a detailed map. The term logic model is often used interchangeably with theory of change, although some distinguish a logic model as a flow chart that explicitly diagrams relationships between resources (or inputs), activities, and results."
What’s its value in evaluating social impact?
A theory of change is a valuable starting place if you want to understand the relationship between the social problem you are addressing, the change you want to make, and the strategies you’re using to achieve the results you want. It usually entails thinking through all the steps along a path toward a desired change. You identify the preconditions that will enable (and possibly inhibit) change, listing the activities that will produce positive conditions, and explain why those activities are likely to work. Often, people start by articulating the desired outcomes first and work backward through a series of assumptions about the work. Others begin with the preconditions.
For arts and social change work, a theory of change can help you:
- focus on conditions or context that can sharpen the articulation of outcomes
- narrow and specify outcomes and strategies that seem too broad or are difficult to define or quantify
- see what’s possible and not possible to achieve with your arts-based program or project
- think about what inputs might be needed—yours and others—and when/where your input(s) might be most catalytic or strategic
- examine whether or not your intervention will have a meaningful or powerful enough effect
- avoid straying off course when unexpected events or inputs emerge
- practice evaluative thinking!
Example: Flint Youth Theatre
Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) worked through a logic model to help plan and evaluate …My Soul to Take, a project that engaged community members in dialogue about the issue of youth violence.
Preconditions: A year after a fatal elementary school shooting in Flint, community efforts were fragmented and the community was at somewhat of a standstill around the issue. Flint Youth Theatre had a track record of social topic plays but had not expanded its potential as a forum or catalyst for broad community dialogue. The community was at a point of needing to move beyond grief and healing toward action.
Theory of Change: Looking at FYT’s strengths alongside those of other community agencies, change would begin by coalescing agencies and community-based leaders to better understanding the causes and effects of youth violence. Theater-based dialogue and the new play would serve to galvanize the community, unite agencies, and involve community members to define meaningful actions.
The logic model was useful in clarifying this theory of change. As a planning tool, it helped FYT to focus and limit the project’s many possible programmatic directions. It also helped FYT to consider critical context (or conditions) such as pending statewide gun legislation and to identify civic objectives it was best positioned to effect. For example, FYT decided to pursue coalescing local agencies but not to pursue activism related to the gun legislation. With focused goals and activities, the logic model guided evaluation choices.
Developing a Logic Model. From the Arts & Civic Engagement Tool Kit, Animating Democracy and Americans for the Arts, 2008. This tool provides an example and a simple exercise for creating a logic model.
Mapping Change: Using a Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation, by Craig McGarvey. Published by GrantCraft, 2006. This brief guide explains why grantmakers use theories of change to guide their questioning, unearth assumptions that underlie their work, establish common language, and develop strong action plans. Contributors to the guide also describe how a theory of change sets the stage for evaluation by clarifying goals, strategies, and milestones.
See the full text here
Theory of Change website. This comprehensive website offers a wide array of background information, tools, and sample documents that can help practitioners and others get started with theory of change. A collaborative project of ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change.
Visit the Theory of Change website
W.K. Kellogg Foundation Evaluation Handbook. W. K. Kellogg Foundation. For those with little or no evaluation experience, and without the time or resources to learn more, this handbook can help project staff to plan and conduct an evaluation with the assistance of an external evaluator.
Download the full text here