The Theory of Change approaches to evaluation emphasise being explicit about ones understanding of how change happens and of how an initiative contributes to that change in any particular context. This in turn, helps to focus data collection and enables testing of the Theory of Change to see if it adequately accounts for what happens.
In practice people use Theory of Change quite differently, as a number of recent reviews of literature and practice have shown. The approach can sometimes be used like a logical framework approach - simply outlining the expected causal linkages between a project’s activities and desired outcomes. Others stress the iterative nature of a Theory of Change and highlight the importance of playing close attention to the effects of context and of tracking more emergent changes over time.
Theory of Change approaches draws loosely on the family of Theory Driven Evaluation approaches (such as Realist Evaluation), which are rooted in a more systematic literature and philosophy about how social change can be understood. The use of Theory of Change by evaluators in practice may sometimes selectively use some simple tools drawn from this work.
Often, a key component of a Theory of Change based approach is to generate a concise description of what the project hopes to achieve, often visualised in a summary diagram. When used as part of a more thorough process, participatory workshops and discussions are used to develop a Theory of Change with a group of involved stakeholders, and this may be revisited periodically, with recognition that what is important and needs to be tracked may change over time.
Other Introductions to Theory of Change
Video: Theory of Change UNICEF Webinar by Patricia Rogers
Caption: A 32 minute introductory webinar covers what a Theory of Change is, how to develop one, and how to use a Theory of Change to support development of evaluation questions and look at impact. It also includes a number of examples of how theories of change have been visualised in diagrams. Credit: Patricia Rogers.
IDS Practice Paper in Brief, ILY Brief 14 (September 2013)
This short briefing gives an account of the different ways in which theory of change approaches have been used with some lessons learned for how it can most usefully be applied in practice. Although focused on evaluating research uptake, it usefully summarises some of the tensions and challenges in using a theories of change approach, concluding that rather than as a static description they need to be used iteratively to collect evidence around theory and assumptions and test them regularly.
Rick Davies (2016) Methods Lab Paper: Overseas Development Institute
Clear (if sometimes technical paper) making the case that tight and testable theories of change are not always appropriate for participatory development projects or those that require adaptive and responsive planning. The paper argues for a middle way of using ‘loose’ theories of change to link activities and outcomes and combining this with across and within case analysis. Illustrates this combination of methods with a detailed case example.
More resources on Theory of Change can be found in the Mesh Theory of Change rescources category. To see how this resource fits in with the rest of Mesh's evaluation resources, and to learn how to navigate them, visit the Mesh evaluation page.
This resource was developed by Robin Vincent as part of supporting the Wellcome Trust linked community of practice on evaluation of public and community engagement and was originally hosted on the eMOPs website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.