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Theory of Change: From Flop to Top!

In this article I will share 3 tips on how to design better Theories of Change (ToC). The ToC is the organisation’s critical assumptions on how their interventions bring about change (Valters, 2015). You can read more on the definition of the ToC and the background in my previous blog post.

A ToC usually consists of a diagrammatic representation and a narrative. Most persons are familiar with the former. It is the visual representation with the boxes, circles, clouds, arrows, trees, woodland creatures, rainbows, pixie dust…oh, I got carried away (similar to the way some organisations get preoccupied with ‘artwork’ of the ToCs).

The visual representation is usually accompanied with text (the narrative) that gives more details on the wider context, assumptions, indicators, rationale and the elements shown on the diagram.

This blog post focuses on the diagrammatic representation.

That is, suggesting tips on how to make a ‘good’ visualisation of a ToC. My subjective definition of ‘good’ refers to a visualisation that is communicable to a wide audience, while being evaluable at the same time (learn more about evaluable ToCs from Davies (2018)).

Pondering on what makes a ToC ‘good’

Now, while in the literature there is no consensus on whether a logical framework or logic model qualifies as a ToC or not, what is apparent is that at the very minimum, a ‘good’ ToC should have an outcomes pathway WITH causal links.

The outcomes pathway depict how one action/intervention (outcomes) leads to another until the ultimate change (impact) is achieved. Think of it as a ‘road map’ if you will (or as a ‘compass’ (Valters, 2015)) that navigates the way to arriving at the destination of the achieved goal.

The visualisation may be enhanced in the following ways.

Tip 1: Describing and labeling the connections

The outcome pathway in most ToCs are usually presented as the one in Figure 1. Text boxes are connected by arrows that flow in a linear way towards the end result(s).

Figure 1 The Theory of change of vegIMPACT

However while it is useful to see where the interventions are connected, the person looking at the ToC would not gain insight on the nature of the connections nor on the evidence for the particular causal link.

For example, what is the scale, timing or duration of the connection? Or why does this action trigger or cause the next action to occur. Just drawing an arrow from one outcome to the next does not mean that the next outcome will automatically happen.

As such, a good practice is to label the connections using colour codes and different text to describe the relationship between each outcome (more on that later).

Figure 2

The diagram shown in Figure 2 has numbers on the casual links (arrows) which directs the reader towards additional information on the nature of the connection. It could be that connection labelled number 9 (women attending classes in non-traditional skills) has more significance or weight to the achievement of the long term employment of women (ultimate result) versus the connection labelled 6 (counselling and practical support). The ToC in Figure 1 did not have any label or code to give further information on particular causal links/connections.

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​​​Ann-Murray Brown

Monitoring, Evaluation and
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