What is a Theory of Change?

In the world of NGOs and international cooperation, there is often a quagmire of jargon to get through. Whether you have 10 months or 10 years of experience, it can seem like a foreign language!

A term often bandied about is the ‘Theory of Change’, or a ToC. But what is a ToC? An idea about loose coins? A clever way of doing wardrobe changes? Something else? Let’s demystify this widely-used but little understood term.

First, let’s remember that organizations like NIMD are looking to support a certain kind of change that is taking place in a given context. That could take a political, economic, cultural, or other form.

But if you’re serious about supporting a positive change in a town, region, country, or continent, you need to understand the context, the beneficiaries of your work, and the intended results. Only then can you strategize for how you can help make that change happen.

And that’s where a Theory of Change comes in.

Trying to complete a development project without understanding the goals, context and beneficiaries of your work can be a pretty daft thing to do…(photo credit Alan Levine – Flickr)


So what does a Theory of Change look like?

A Theory of Change is a written document that lays out the methodology and rationale behind an organization’s work. It therefore performs several distinct functions:

  • Describes the organization’s overarching goal;
    • Such as boost access to healthcare, reduce poverty, or in NIMD’s case, support the proliferation of vibrant multiparty democracies.
  • Explains the organization’s mandate for working towards this goal;
    • This could be the way in which it was founded, a government mandate, or something else.
  • Lists the results the organization is seeking to achieve;
    • The ToC will also discuss the beneficiaries of the projects being undertaken.
  • Lays out the methods the organization will deploy to reach their goals.
    • It’s also essential to provide a rationale for these methods.

So next time you hear this slightly confusing term, remember a Theory of Change is all about justifying the organization’s work, and showing the reader why their work matters to the beneficiaries. They can be presented in text form, as graphics, or another form of media.

However, approaching programming using a Theory of Change is not always straightforward.

Nic van der Jagt, Evaluation and Learning Advisor at NIMD, says that “there is much diversity of thought in what a Theory of Change approach is; one thing it certainly can do is help set realistic outcomes and give you flexibility in your programming. But this requires ongoing political analysis and a willingness to try out different solutions to the problems you’re working on.”

What matters most is that it shows the reasoning behind the work being done.¬†They serve to guide an organization’s programming, and complete the statement “we do this, so that…” – and this is crucial for organizations looking to make an impact, be it in their local community or on the international stage!