A theory of change is a description of how and why your project (e.g. program, initiative, or agency) will lead to the desired goals. Creating a theory of change can be a helpful tool in developing programs or solutions to address complex problems such as preventing or addressing domestic violence. Theories of change are often presented visually and will also include a rich narrative description that outlines the context in which the project operates, the underlying assumptions about the problem and solutions, the strategies or approaches it will take, and the goals or impacts they hope to achieve. One of the key differences between a theory of change and a logic model is that a theory of change makes explicit the assumptions underlying how the program will create change and creates a causal chain between the assumptions, strategies, outcomes and goals.
A theory of change is often presented as a flow chart or outcome map similar to a logic model and can vary in their complexity. See below for examples of the different ways domestic violence organizations have visualized their theory of change.
Examples of Organization-Wide Theory of Change
You may have seen a theory of change that represents an entire organization’s efforts. These two examples from the Washington Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence articulate an organization-wide theory of change.
You can read more about how the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence developed their theory of change in this article on VAWnet: How can movement building support our efforts for social change and collective thriving? by Kelly Miller and Micaela Ríos Anguiano.
Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence: Theory of Change
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers another example of an organization-wide theory of change. This theory of change describes their purpose, strategies, and the principles that will actualize their mission and vision. See their Theory of Change Frequently Asked Questions to learn more.
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Theory of Change
An Example of a Field-Wide Theory of Change
A theory of change can also represent the domestic violence service field as a whole. The following theory of change outlines how domestic violence program services work to promote social and emotional well-being of survivors. It was developed by Dr. Cris Sullivan in partnership with numerous experts in the gender-based violence field for the Domestic Violence Evidence Project.
Theory of Change for Domestic Violence Programs
Describing Your Program with A Theory of Change
As shown in the above examples, there is no standardized way of depicting a program or organization’s theory of change. However, most theories of change will share the following characteristics:
Articulation of program assumptions and context in which the program will operate.
The long-term goal or impact the program hopes to achieve.
The outcomes and strategies needed to achieve their impact.
A causal map or “pathway of change” that links impacts/long-term goals to necessary pre-conditions.
- Long-term goals are linked to outcomes.
- Outcomes are linked to activities.
The process for developing a theory of change most often starts with identifying your program’s expected impact or long-term goal and then working backwards to identify the necessary pre-conditions to achieve that long-term goal. You can then identify the assumptions that underlay each outcome (pre-condition) to help you identify the interventions, strategies or activities that will contribute to the change.
Simple Theory of Change
The following definitions and reflection questions may be helpful in developing a theory of change:
Assumptions – underlying beliefs about how your program will work.
- What problem or challenge is the program trying to address?
- What are the underlying causes of the problem?
- Whom does it affect?
- What is known? What does existing research and experience say?
- At what level of impact will I work?
Impact or long-term goal refers to the broader, more long‐term effect of a project outcome on people’s lives.
Outcomes are indicators that tell us what visible, demonstrable, or measurable changes have occurred as a result of our activities. Outcomes often measure changes in terms of some type of knowledge, skills, or behavior.
- How will you know when you have succeeded?
- What indicates success over time? At intake, mid-program, after the program ends?
Activities and strategies are all the things that program or project staff do to implement the project or achieve the objectives of the project.
- What tools or processes will the program undertake?
- What resources are available?
- What partnerships will be necessary?
When to use a theory of change?
Developing a theory of change can be a large undertaking and is best developed in partnership with other program constituents.
A theory of change is very helpful when describing a complex program (e.g. serves different groups of people or involves multiple program components or services).
A theory of change can be used when strategic planning or clarifying a program strategy. It provides a clearer picture of the program and organization as a whole and makes assumptions explicit.
Grant proposals will often ask for a theory of change or logic model of your program.
Help select priorities and timelines for your program.
As a precursor to evaluation. In an evaluability assessment you can use the theory of change to compare the program as it was intended to how it operates.
During evaluation to guide the timing and selection of data collection tools based using program theory.
Tell the story of your program’s impact.
Theory of Change, (theoryofchange.org) hosts a comprehensive website to support users develop their theory of change. See their guide for how and when to use a theory of change along with tools and examples.
Developing a Theory of Change: Practical Theory of Change Guidance, Templates and Examples by Annie E. Casey Foundation offers a four-part series on developing a Theory of Change. The series introduces readers to fundamental concepts, walks users through developing a theory of change, provides templates and worksheets, and examples.
Articulating Your Theory of Change by Learning for Action offers a brief toolkit on developing a simple theory of change that highlights needs, target population, core program components, outcomes and hypotheses (assumptions of how the program works to achieve its outcomes).