What Is A Charity Theory Of Change Model and Process, And How To Do It

The Theory of Change (ToC) model is a process widely adopted within the charity sector, but isn't always well understood. This resource explains what Theory Of Change is, how it works, how to do it and enables you to ask yourself questions, to decide if it'd work well for your charity.

What Is The Theory Of Change Model & Process?

The Theory Of Change (ToC) model and process emerged in the-mid 1990s and, much beloved by consultants, is sometimes seen as 'how charities do strategy', but that's not quite accurate.  It's widely used in the charity sector, but is also used by Government and other organisations. It’s in many respects similar to strategic planning, but is defined as a model for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used to promote social change.

ToC is about being clear on what the social change you wish to happen is, then working backwards step by step to identify what must happen for that change to occur. The change we wish is x, but for that to occur a, b, c and d must happen first and for those to occur, a1, a2, b1, b2, b3, c1 must happen first.

It's a theory, not a plan. It doesn't create change, but it can be used as the basis for your planning, evaluation and monitoring.

It can be in a diagrammatic form and/or narrative.

You can apply a detailed, rigorous process, but you can also do it yourself. Obviously, a rigorous process would give you a better ToC, but that requires the investment of time and, if you use a consultant, money - and we don't have nearly enough of either.

One way to explore ToC is to follow the process above to create your own, by writing it down or drawing a diagram. If that works well, but the results don't fit with your current planning/thinking, or raise important questions you can't yet answer, then investing more time in creating a ToC may be worthwhile.  If what you produce isn't useful, then perhaps not.

What Is Strategic Planning?

In practical terms, we may be able to influence key stakeholders, or achieve change in a specific area, but we can't really change the outside world, only respond to it.

Strategy is about being clear about your longer-term objectives, assessing the relevant key issues in the outside world and your own internal strengths and weaknesses, to create a plan that brings them together in the best way possible, to deliver your strategic objectives.

PESTLE analysis is the outside world and the Opportunities and Threats, in a SWOT analysis.  SWOT brings these together with your internal Strengths and Weaknesses to enable you to create your strategy.   

How To Asses Strategy Quickly And Easily

Make your strategy and planning even more effective, by assessing you strategic thinking and process online in 30 mins, with access to the system's huge resource base, including Charity Excellence step-by-step toolkits, worked examples and templates, designed specifically for charities. You don't need to have any experience of strategic planning, as the system will lead you through it. 

Everything is free.

To find the help and funding you want – Register Now

Strategic Planning Or Theory Of Change?

One isn't better than the other and there's a lot of overlap, but they aren't the same. 

Strategic planning is probably better known and understood (vision, mission, SWOT), but ToC was built for non-profits and some people really like it.  Which might work best with your charity and stakeholders?

ToC is a theory, which isn't a problem, but you still need to plan, evaluate and monitor your work. 

Your vision is how you believe the world should be (but may not be achievable) and your mission is what you aim to achieve, in order to move towards that vision. Your ToC is the social change you wish to happen.    

Strategic planning is about the key opportunities and threats in the outside world and the strengths and weaknesses within your charity, then bringing these together in a plan. It's thinking about what might happen and then responding to that. ToC is about what you want to happen and then identifying what needs to happen for that change to occur.

Both have to make a lot of assumptions, so these need to be rigorously tested, must be grounded in what is realistically achievable (or what's the point), engage and involve stakeholders, be flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable change and be followed through to implementation. 

The best choice is the one that works for your charity.

Charity Excellence has a variety of tools for strategic planning, but many have been created or modified specifically to work for non-profits.  You can use these either for strategic planning, or in creating your ToC.  Use the ones that work and ignore the rest.  Here are some of these.     

Toolkit 1 does a lot of the sector specific spadework for you by providing a sector outlook and a strategic planning process to follow.  If it's a fundraising strategy, use Toolkit 2.  Most strategies fail at implementation - they lie on the shelf gathering dust.  There's a Charity Excellence resource on how to make strategy effective and, as everyone is really busy, another on strategy, for people who haven't got time to do strategy.  If you need it, there's also a resource on how to write charity vision and mission statements, quickly and without arguing (too much).

The Theory Of Change Process

Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify what conditions need to be in place to make these happen. 

It explains the process of change by linking shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes that will in turn drive the next. These are mapped as the outcomes pathway, showing the relationship between each outcome and the others, in a chronological order.  This needs to happen (in the shorter term), before that can happen (in the intermediate term), which needs to happen before that can (in the longer-term), with your goal at the end of the process.  It's about identifying the step-by-step changes that need to happen to make your goal possible.

One of its strengths is in making the distinction between desired and actual outcomes.  You need to decide what you want to happen (the outcome), before you decide what you will do.  Although, that arguably, applies to other types of planning too. 

It can also begin at any stage of an initiative, depending on what you wish to achieve from it.  For example, having a change model at the outset helps you make more informed decisions about strategy and business planning.  It can also be used retrospectively to reflect on what has worked, or not, in order to learn from that. 

How To Apply The Theory Of Change Model

The first step is to identify a workable long-term goal and long-term outcomes. The long-term goal should be something the can realistically be achieved and that everyone involved understands and buys in to. 

Once a long-term goal is identified, consider what conditions must be in place for you to reach your goal.  These are shown as outcomes on your ToC pathway, underneath the long-term outcome. These outcomes act as preconditions to the long-term outcome.

The process of identifying preconditions continues, drilling down the pathway by asking questions, such as what has to be in place for this outcome to be achieved and would these be adequate for the outcome to be achieved? 

This is probably best dome as group work, which helps to achieve the essential buy-in and creates a breadth of perspective.  A facilitator can be very helpful to manage the process.

Your work is them distilled down into your Theory Of Change. 

Which Is Best - The Theory Of Change Model Or Strategic Planning?

Theory of change versus strategic planning

Some have argued that ToC is a fixed model that gets in the way of effective delivery and evaluation.  A fixed model That doesn't work, but a fixed strategic plan doesn't either, so I think the real question is what are your trying to achieve?  If it's social change, then that's what the model was built for and, if not, maybe it'd work for you anyway.  

Linear theory versus real world delivery

ToC is a linear model and the real world is neither linear, nor predictable.  A counter to that is it is a forecast, which shows what conditions we believe must exist for the changes we want to happen.  Arguably, it's thinking that is used as a driver for change.  It's a theory, not a plan, so make sure you build in planning to deliver your social change aims, with ongoing monitoring and evaluation to manage delivery and feed back into updating your ToC.

Resources & Skills

There are lots of tools, consultants and even ToC software.  If you have the time and money, you don't need any particular expertise to benefit.  However, if you don't want (or have time for) all the discussions and diagrams, you can apply the ToC approach as a useful addition to your normal longer-term thinking. 


It has been said that culture trumps strategy every time, so ask yourself if it's an approach you'd feel comfortable using and that your stakeholders would buy into. It's widely used in the sector and if they like the social change focus, it may be a good choice. If they see it as senior management theory that doesn't change anything, possibly not. 

Personally, I don't use it.  My training was in business school strategic planning, I prefer practical delivery to theory.  However, I get things wrong all the time, so far better to make your own mind up, than do what I do. 

How To Achieve Even More

Find funders using the Funding Finder database and 50+ funder lists.  Health check your charity in half a day, access the huge resource base, including 100s of organisations that provide free help and resources, and achieve the Quality Mark.

Fast, Simple And Everything Is Free.

To find the help and funding you want – Register Now

The questions are phrased brilliantly - challenging how we prioritise our management time." Ecosystems Knowledge Network

Register Now