Theory of Change

There are two related models that are often cited in program planning and program evaluation: Logic Model and Theory of Change. Both have their benefits, but I will argue here that Theory of Change is more powerful and appropriate for thinking through the ways that programs and services can lead to social change. Once you’ve done that thinking though, Logic Models can be a great way to summarize your core plan.


Logic Models are flowcharts or tables that attempt to describe causal links between program investments, activities, and their effect. They suggest that if we think about what gets invested in a program or service (inputs), and we think about what we do with that investment (activities), then we should also … logically … be able to show the steps that will lead to the desired outputs, outcomes, and/or impacts. Then, we can compare the investment with the outcomes of the program or service and we’ll be able to say whether all the effort was “worth it”.

Unfortunately, Logic Models often give an oversimplified and idealized view of what makes programs or services effective. The suggestion of rationality in the name “Logic Model” reinforces this (if we do x then y must logically follow). However, in twenty-five years of program planning, I never came across a program that unfolded in a straight and direct line from design to successful completion and multi-level impact. Nor do most Logic Models give us quite enough information to trouble-shoot disappointments about the program outcomes. Instead, the risk is that “more inputs” or “different activities” are presumed to be the solution for an ineffective program or service, like adding more chocolate chips to runny cookie dough.

Instead, I have found that the Theory of Change model holds more complex, detailed, contextualized, and useful information for program planning and evaluation. It creates a conceptual framework for programs and services to be “grown”, not “constructed”. It links the longer-term vision to the more immediate “problem to be solved” yet still shows how specific steps are needed to reach the intended goals. Even the name acknowledges that the model only represents a theory of how a desired change can be achieved. As such, Theory of Change is an ideal way of thinking through purpose and mission, underlying assumptions, beneficiaries and stakeholders, as well as developmental evaluation strategies for organizations aiming for ongoing social innovation rather than product development.

The version of the Theory of Change model that I use was developed by Innoweave and is composed of seven straight-forward questions. Despite being straight-forward, these questions require time and thought to answer. In the process of that work, underlying values and assumptions emerge. Once the seven questions are answered, the resulting Theory of Change chart captures the essence of a program or service and makes it possible to do strategic planning, partnership development, and gap analysis. It also becomes easier to create a realistic and more effective Logic Model. Most importantly, this version of the Theory of Change makes it possible to build an evaluation framework that can identify “evidence-keepers” who see the ripple-effect of change the occurs in individuals, families, communities, and systems.

If you want to learn how to create a Theory of Change for your program or service, you can register for my workshop.

You can find basic information about Theory of Change here. Better Evaluation is one of my favourite websites for demystifying evaluation terms.

You can also find out more about advanced Theory of Change work here. Please note that I have not tried out the products produced by this organization and therefore cannot speak to their quality. I tend to question the need for expensive software unless you are mapping out very complex Theories of Change. Otherwise, paper and computer will do just fine.

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