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Unbelievable! 5 Practical (and Easy) Steps to Develop a Theory of Change

So after reading my last article you have a good understanding of what a Theory of Change (TOC) is and a fair idea of what a TOC should look like. You are now interested in developing your own TOC.

However, where do you start?

In this article I will share practical steps and tips for designing a TOC for your organisation or programme. Please know that there is no ‘one way’ to go about this and the contents of this article are based on my own experience of what worked well (and not so well) for me in the past. I will also use the ‘Project Superwoman’ as an example throughout this article.

Before you begin, please bear in mind that developing a TOC is a participatory and collaborative process. One that involves all the stakeholders and not just the programme staff (or even worse one person!) sitting in the Head Office to draft a TOC. Stakeholders that could be included in the process are the potential beneficiaries of the initiative, the programme implementers and other persons who possess expertise or knowledge in the area that the TOC will address.

Secondly, the process to develop a TOC should ideally be a facilitated group discussion with the above-mentioned stakeholders. In other words, e-mailing documents back and forth and Skype calls at the beginning of the process is an absolute no-no.

My recommendation is just to organise a whole day retreat somewhere out of the office to get away from distractions such as ringing telephones and to get the ‘creative juices’ flowing.

Once you have all the stakeholders holed up in a secluded cabin somewhere (hopefully not against their will) the steps to developing the TOC are as follows.

Step 1: Identify a long-term goal

In this step the group discuss, agree on and get specific about the long term goal(s). It is important that there is consensus among all the participants on a good, clear outcome. Agreement on a clear goal is vital as the entire TOC hinges on this long term goal. You can have more than one goal but I recommend no more than three (I learnt this the hard way when a TOC I developed became unwieldy with too many goals). For Project Superwoman the Goal was:

Step 2: Conduct ‘backward mapping’ to identify the preconditions necessary to achieve that goal

Once this goal has been identified the participants then ask themselves what preconditions need to exist in order for this goal to be achieved. In the case of this project, three preconditions were identified.

Tip: Use a different colour for the Goal

From the participants’ experience and research, they figure that in order for the women to have ‘Long Term Employment’ survivors need to:

1.Attain coping skills

2. Survivors need to have marketable skills in non-traditional jobs and

3.Survivors know and have appropriate workplace behaviour.

Theory of Change Project Superwoman

During this step the participants will also clarify the assumptions and justifications for the preconditions.

For the Goal: ‘Long Term Employment at Liveable Wages for Domestic Violence Survivors’ an assumptions was:

Assumption A: Jobs in non-traditional areas of work for women, such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry and building management are more likely to pay liveable wages and are more likely to be unionized and provide job security. Some of these jobs also provide a ladder of upward mobility, from apprenticeship to master, giving entry-level employees a career future.

Tip: Spot Check

Assumption B: Although this assumption was not specified in ‘Project Superwoman’, I think that another assumption could be that employers are willing to hire women in jobs that are traditionally carried out by men. That is, employers (and their customers) are ok with an electrician who is a woman.

For the precondition/outcome ‘Survivors attain coping skills’ the assumption was:

Assumption C: Women who have been abused need more than just skills, they need to be emotionally ready for work as well. This s assumption clarifies why and how the Superwoman project was different from traditional job-training programmes, i.e., the special psychological supports needed for the initiative’s clients.

For the precondition/outcome ‘Survivors have marketable skills in non-traditional jobs’,

Assumption D: Women can learn non-traditional skills and compete in the marketplace

The assumptions are captured in the TOC below by the letters of the alphabet.

The process of the backwards mapping and connecting the outcomes (with the underlying assumptions) continues until there is a framework that tells the entire story.

Step 3: Identify the interventions

With the change framework now visually represented (with all the connections between the outcomes/preconditions identified), the group should now focus on the interventions. Interventions are the activities that the programme will engage in to bring about the change.

The interventions explain what the stakeholders are going to do to achieve their desired outcomes. In Project Superwoman the following interventions were identified.

See the interventions visually represented in the TOC below.

Based on the first intervention, an outreach campaign is necessary to publicise the programme for the women to hear about it and the second intervention is a screening to ensure that the right target population (women who are the victims of violence) are the ones to actually be allowed into the programme.

Step 4: Develop indicators for each outcome/precondition in the TOC

This step focuses on how to measure the implementation and effectiveness of the initiative. Please see my other articles on how to develop indicators.

Step 5: Writing the Narrative

This is the final step and is the text that accompanies the visual part of the TOC. This narrative is a meta description of the programme. A good narrative sums up the initiative’s story. It starts from the beginning with the background and goals explaining why they are important and how the initiative’s work achieves the goals.

It is not expected that a final TOC is produced at the end of the workshop. What usually happens is that the facilitator of the group discussion takes photos of all the sticky notes and chart papers from the day.

These photos are then used to inform the content of the final TOC. MS Power Point, MS Word,

MS Excel or a special software can be used to give the TOC its final shape and look.

It is at this stage that the e-mailing and Skyping make take place to expand and edit the TOC before its finalisation.

Once you have developed your TOC it should be evaluated against the following criteria.

  • The TOC should be plausible: Does common sense or prior evidence suggests that the activities, if implemented, will lead to desired results?

  • The TOC should be agreed upon:Is there reasonable agreement among the stakeholders with the theory of change as postulated?

  • The TOC should be embedded: Is the theory of change embedded in a broader social and economic context, where other factors and risks likely to influence the desired results are identified?

  • The TOC should be testable: Is the theory of change specific enough to measure its assumptions in credible and useful ways?

  • The TOC should be feasible: Are the set of interventions feasible to implement given the available resources?

So to Recap...

Lastly, as I am a big fan of simplicity and being clear, I advise you to not ‘over-complicate’ your TOC. Some persons want to include every possible change, every aspect of the broader socio-economic context, 50 assumptions and 100 indicators for the TOC. This is not necessary. Nor should you get carried away with the fancy design elements (I have seen TOCs shaped like houses and birds, see this article for inspiration) at the expense of a robust TOC.

The TOC should be easily understood at a glance and more than all it should make logical sense. Additionally, your TOC is not a static document and should be reviewed periodically for continued relevance throughout the implementation of your programme.

Good luck with developing your TOC.

Do you need help in developing your Theory of Change? Then get in touch with me.


Anderson, A.C. Kubisch & J.P. Connell (Eds) New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives. Volume 2: Theory, measurement and analysis (Queenstown, The Aspen Institute).

Connell, J.P. & Kubisch, A.C. (1998) Applying a theory of change approach to the evaluation of comprehensive community initiatives: progress, prospects and problems in: K. Fulbright

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​​​Ann-Murray Brown

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