What Is A Charity Theory Of Change And How To Do It

Charity Theory of Change explained simply.  What it is, how it works, how to create a ToC yourself, pros and cons and how to decide if you need one

Charity Theory of Change

Charity Theory of Change explained simply.  What a charity theory of change is, how it works, how it compares to strategy, pros and cons and how to decide if your charity needs a theory of change.

What Is A Charity Theory Of Change?

Very simply a charity Theory of Change is like a map or plan that explains why the charity does what it does and how it expects to make a difference. It's a way to show how the charity's actions lead to positive outcomes, like helping people in need or making the world a better place. Think of it as the charity's story of how it believes it can create real change.

How Does a Charity Theory of Change Work?

A charity Theory of Change 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.

A charity theory of change is just that, 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.

Does Our Charity Need a Theory of Change?

You can apply a detailed, rigorous process, but you can also do it yourself. Obviously, a rigorous process would give you a better Theory of Change, 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 a charity Theory of Change is to use the model as a template 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 Theory of Change may be worthwhile.  If what you produce isn't useful, then perhaps not.

Theory of Change Versus Charity Strategy

Theory Of Change emerged in the-mid 1990s and, much beloved by consultants, is sometimes seen as 'how charities do strategy', but that's not quite accurate.  You can have both and, if you do, your charity theory of change comes first.   It's widely used by charities, and also by Government and other non profits. but you can have a charity strategy without a theory of change.

  • A charity theory of change outlines the logical connections between actions and outcomes in a project or initiative. It's like a roadmap that explains why and how a particular change is expected to happen. It focuses on the cause-and-effect relationships between activities, outputs, outcomes, and impacts.
  • A charity strategy is the plan designed to achieve the goals outlined in the Theory of Change. It's a set of actions and tactics that are employed to bring about the desired change. Strategies are more concrete and specific than the broader conceptual framework of a Theory of Change. They detail the steps, resources, and approaches needed to implement the theory effectively.

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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 Theory of Change was built for non-profits and some people really like it.  Which might work best with your charity and stakeholders?

Theory of Change is, what it says it is, a theory.  That 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 charity Theory of Change 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. Your charity Theory of Change 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 my own work that I've put online.

The Theory Of Change Model

The Theory of Change model 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 Create a Charity Theory Of Change

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 charity Theory of Change 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 charity Theory Of Change.

Which Is Best - A Charity Theory Of Change Or Strategic Planning?

Theory of change versus strategic planning

Some have argued that Theory of Change 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

Theory of Change 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 Theory of Change.

Resources & Skills

There are lots of tools, consultants and even Theory of Change 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 Theory of Change model 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.

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