What is a Theory of Change and When Does Your Nonprofit Need One?

3 min read

A Theory of Change is a visual definition of the broader social change an organization is looking to achieve, hand-in-hand with others in its ecosystem, and a map of all of the outcomes and activities necessary to achieve it.

A digital whiteboard with post-its. The title reads "Graduating high school seniors go on to successfully complete post-secondary education." The post-its read, "Corporate training," "1:1 support," "partnership with after school programs/athletics," "educator conference/family nights," "scholarships," "increased academic achievement," "free/affordable post-secondary educational options," "a strong student support network during high school," "engaged families and educators," "student social-emotional wellbeing," "every student has a mentor," "focus on whole-child," "access to mental health professionals," and "professional mentors embedded at high school."

A Theory of Change is made up of several elements, the first being your long-term goal, which is the broader social change your nonprofit or one of its programs is working to achieve, not necessarily through the work of your organization alone, but alongside others that are in your space or sector-aligned. 

So for example, a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring high schoolers might have a long-term goal along the lines of: Graduating high school seniors go on to successfully complete post-secondary education. 

Leading up to the long-term goal in the Theory of Change are all of the outcomes that are required to meet it, which create your pathway to change. 

In sticking with the example above, to ensure graduating high school seniors go on to successfully complete post-secondary education, there are a number of short-term, mid-term and long-term outcomes that would need to be true, such as:

  • Increased academic achievement for high schools students
  • Student social-emotional well-being
  • A strong student support network during high school 
  • Free or affordable post-secondary educational options

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully you can see that the idea is to think about all of the things that need to happen in order for the long-term goal to be achieved. The Theory of Change process asks that you start with the broadest, highest level change you’re looking to impact (the long-term goal) and map your pathway backwards by asking, immediately before the long-term goal, what outcomes need to be true? And if those outcomes are true, what outcomes come right before that? And so on…

Once the long-term goal is established and outcome pathways are mapped, the activities associated with each outcome are also mapped. So for example:

  • Increased academic achievement for high schools students → 1:1 support/mentorship
  • Student social-emotional well-being → focus on the whole-child approaches
  • A strong student support network during high school → emphasis on family & educator engagement in student success (educator conference, family nights, partnerships with athletics)
  • Free or affordable post-secondary educational options → scholarships, corporate training programs

Finally, the Theory of Change is underpinned by a set of assumptions. These assumptions allow groups to develop a more focused final product. So, high school seniors successfully completing post-secondary education in our sample Theory might come along with the assumption that there are many factors outside of mentorship that support a student’s success, not all of which can be articulated in one diagram.

It’s important to note that while your Theory of Change is in service of your vision and mission, it should be realistic and achievable. When your Theory of Change is complete, you should establish success indicators, or how you will measure progress toward the path put forward and over what timeframe.

When does your nonprofit need a Theory of Change?

While many nonprofits develop a Theory of Change simply to understand their role in the broader ecosystem, there are a few instances where it can become a valuable decision-making tool.

The first is to facilitate discussion about where your nonprofit should focus. Your final map will state your long-term goal, all of the outcomes that lead to that goal and the activities necessary to achieve each outcome. This comprehensive view will allow you to see how your current programs and services support the Theory of Change and where there are opportunities to grow or change to better support the future you hope to create. 

The second instance where a Theory of Change is helpful is to build consensus or align multiple stakeholders or nonprofits around a central goal and the pathway necessary to achieve it.

Does your organization have a Theory of Change? If so, I’d love to see it.

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