Martyn Drake: Use your theory of change well

If approached in the right way, this technique can help you to continually improve your organisation

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Like any tool that’s poorly understood, the "theory of change" seems to have as many critics as proponents. For some, the title itself is so obscure and off-putting that many organisations have had to rename theirs just get it onto the board agenda.

A theory of change is essentially a technique that allows a diverse group of experts to come together, share their experiences and create a model for solving problems that have many moving parts.

At a seminar I hosted last week with a group of charity chief executives, it emerged that there were many approaches and motivations for developing a theory of change, and some were proving far more useful than others. So, in an attempt to demystify what can be an extremely powerful technique, let me share my experience.

You can use a theory of change to communicate your strategy, to neatly arrange your key performance indicators and to explain why your organisation does so many different things, but none of those are good reasons to spend valuable time creating one. The reason for developing your theory is to map out what it takes to create the specific change you’re trying to achieve; it should describe the big things that need to happen to get from one situation to another.

If you work with a diverse range of people and situations, a single theory might have very little value. If your mission is to help people with autism lead fulfilling and productive lives, your theory for a newly diagnosed boy gaining access to the best education for him would probably be very different to one for a mature autistic woman getting a rewarding job she will enjoy.

That initial situation could be a herd of donkeys that are kept in terrible conditions and have extremely poor health, carrying tourists around some Middle Eastern ruins – a far cry from the healthy, cared-for animals you’d like to see. Your theory of change might include legislation, education, amenities and the quality of local service providers – farriers, vets and the like.

People who have experience in those places might give you half a dozen more barriers, from culture and superstition to economics and environment. All those elements need to be collated and understood.

Some of the elements might sit perfectly for your organisation to address. Others might need influencing or partnerships to crack. And for some you might have no answers as yet. But at least you have a hypothesis that you can work on, measure, test and evolve as you build your experience in more and more cases; working out what works, what you thought was important but isn’t, and what you’d missed completely the first time around.

I’ve seen dozens of theories of change, developed for all kinds of reasons, both good and bad, useful and not so useful. Some are vast flow-charts, covering all of a charity’s operations, and some are simple diagrams with just three or four pictures. For some organisations it’s only one of those boxes that need ticking in a strategy process, none of which have much use in the discussions that follow. For others it’s more of an afterthought, a neat way to communicate the four or five headings in the strategy and to house their KPIs.

But for those organisations that use it well, it’s an extremely powerful technique for capturing learning, guiding programmes and continually improving impact and reach throughout the organisation. That can’t happen as long as it is poorly understood; as long as it is the preserve of the executive team, the strategy head or the communications department. If those are the people who own yours, I’d respectfully suggest you’re doing it all wrong.

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