Theory of Change

Brief Description

Theory of Change helps organizations ask simple but important questions about what they are doing and why. It leads to more common understanding and clarity about their approach, and can strengthen partnerships, support organizational development, and facilitate communication. At its heart, a theory of change spells out program logic. It defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify changes that need to happen earlier and/or at other levels (preconditions); and the interventions that will cause each change to happen, making explicit the rationales behind them. The identified changes are mapped graphically in causal pathways of outcomes, showing each outcome in logical relationship to all the others. Interventions—program activities—are mapped to the framework to show what proponents think it will take to cause the changes, and when. A theory of change articulates testable hypotheses about how change will occur and what it will look like. It reveals the assumptions about what actions will best bring about the outcomes in the model. A Theory of Change identifies measurable indicators of success as a roadmap to monitoring and evaluation. Theory of Change is a foundation for strategic planning, communication to partners and funders, credible and relevant evaluation, instilling ownership of the initiative among all stakeholders, and building organizational capacity.


Its origins can be found in the considerable body of theoretical and applied development in the evaluation field, especially among the work of people such as Huey Chen, Peter Rossi, Michael Quinn Patton, and Carol Weiss. The U.S.-based Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change's work on applying program theory to evaluation led to the publication in 1995 of New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives. In that book, Carol Weiss, a member of the Roundtable’s Steering Committee on Evaluation, hypothesized that a key reason complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. She argued that stakeholders of complex initiatives typically are unclear about how the change process will unfold and therefore give little attention to the early and mid-term changes that need to happen in order for a longer term goal to be reached. The lack of clarity about the intermediate that must be taken to reach a long term outcome not only makes the task of evaluating a complex initiative challenging, but reduces the likelihood that all of the important factors related to the long term goal will be addressed (Weiss, 1995).
Weiss popularized the term “Theory of Change” as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the mini-steps that lead to the long-term goal and the connections between program activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way. Since the publication of Weiss’s book, the use of planning and evaluation using theories of change has increased exponentially among philanthropies, government agencies, international NGOs, the UN and many other major organizations in both developed and developing countries.

When to Use

Theory of Change can be entered at any point in the cycle of goal-setting, planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and recalibrating. Specific uses of Theory of Change include:
  • To reflect on purposes and means, and to challenge one another's assumptions about what it will take to bring change
  • To set goals and plan an initiative or program
  • To work out the causal links between interventions and program outcomes
  • To delineate partnership boundaries, shared responsibilities,
  • To plan for organizational resourcing and capacities
  • For monitoring and evaluation
  • To communicate purposes and means to funders, partners, and other actors.

How to use

More information on all aspects of Theory of Change as a process and as a product, visit [[Planning%20Monitoring,%20Evaluation/Theory of Change & Theory of Action|]].

Software Tool

Theory of Change Online (TOCO). TOCO is a collaborative web-based software tool anyone can use free of charge to map out their theories of change. Visit Find: "TOCO Software" then "Access the free version here." Register as instructed, look for activation email (disable popup blocker if you don't receive the email.) Log onto TOCO and start creating your theory of change.


Dana Taplin, ActKnowledge