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Mapping out a Brighter Future - a theory of change

An effective THEORY OF CHANGE should be an integral part of designing any charity's work, providing a tried and tested explanation of how an intervention will address an identified social need.

They can work on two levels: at an overall organisational level, or for specific activities or programmes.

Most charities are born out of a particular need or challenge, but their theory of change will help to match the design of a charity's work to the targets that it is aiming for. For start-ups, such an approach is invaluable, but the tools and thinking associated with producing a theory of change make the model beneficial for established charities that are considering a new programme or evaluating the effectiveness of longstanding activities.

The starting point, unsurprisingly, is to describe the current state of the challenge, then how the charity wants to see it in the future. It is then necessary to consider how much progress towards the ideal scenario can realistically be made via this intervention.

This process forces the underlying assumptions to be tested rigorously before resources are committed; it's quite possible to design and prototype a new programme with the best of intentions to meet a clearly identified need, only to realise that the solution fails such stringent questioning.

The most common tool used in developing a theory of change is a template similar to the one below:

In most cases the first and last columns will be completed first, which leads the thinking to follow an iterative approach of designing programmes to achieve the desired impact.

One of the reasons why funders are so keen to see a properly thought through theory of change appears towards the right-hand side where measurable effects need to be stated, followed by the wider benefits. In doing this charities can become blinkered about their work, focusing overly on themselves, but the theory of change also assists in spotting wider benefits which may themselves present opportunities for additional positive outcomes for the target audience.

This is a summarised version of my article published in Charity Finance magazine here:


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