6. Theory of change
An increasing number of research donors are now recommending that researchers should develop a theory of change (ToC) to help think through how they can do and communicate the results of the research in a way that will maximise the value of the research for policy and practice.
The ToC approach has been used by operational agencies especially those involved in social programmes as a way of maximising the value of their work. A 2011 review by Comic Relief said “Theory of Change is nothing new, but it can provide a very powerful learning lens, which helps us to ask ourselves and others simple but important questions about what we are doing and why. It enables us to develop a clear framework for monitoring and evaluation; more common understanding, clarity and effectiveness in our approach; and strengthen our partnerships, organisation development and communication”.
The Comic Relief review defined theory of change as an ongoing process of reflection to explore change and how it happens - and what that means for the part we play in a particular context, sector and/or group of people.
- It locates a programme or project within a wider analysis of how change comes about.
- It draws on external learning about development.
- It articulates our understanding of change - but also challenges us to explore it further.
- It acknowledges the complexity of change: the wider systems and actors that influence it
- It is often presented in diagrammatic form with an accompanying narrative summary
Developing a theory of change focused on the policy influence of your research is about drawing a picture of why your evaluation should influence policy and illustrating what is your policy objective and how your research will be used to influence policy and practice.
This process will help you test your policy engagement strategy by unpacking the assumptions and articulating the intermediate outcomes that should lead to your policy objective or impact.
Steps to follow:
- Step 1: Describe the problem or issue(s) your evaluation is trying to address
- Step 2: Identify the needs of the policy influencers you are targeting, and the leverage and entry points you have with them
- Step 3: Identify your desired results or vision of success in the near or longer term (output, intermediate outcomes, policy impact/objective)
- Step 4: Specify the factors (e.g. protective or risk factors, existing policy environment) you believe will influence change.
- Step 5: List the engagement strategies you believe will lead to change
- Step 6: Articulate assumptions about how these changes might happen. This will allow you to check whether the activities and outputs are appropriate for influencing change in the desired direction in this particular context.
Here is below a chart to help you map the different elements of your theory of change. The actual graphic or flow chart representation of the causal chain from inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes to impact can take different forms. See examples of theories of change compiled by DfID:
The RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach is another way of doing this. There are many other approaches, see resources.
Jessica Kiessel of Innovations for Poverty Action talks about the importance of having a clear theory of change of how evaluation findings will influence policy.
- theoryofchange.org library (NB registration is required to access this)
- DFID guide to managing the inception phase of Research Programme Consortia
- Ecosystem services for poverty alleviation theory of change
Simon Batchelor (IDS) and Duncan Green (Oxfam GB). In this video, Simon and Duncan explain how they got interested in Theories of Change: