Theory of Change – Understanding How Any System Works

Sections of this topic

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    Much of the content
    of this topic came from this book:
    Nonprofit Programs - Book Cover

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Basic Overview of Theory of Change
    How to Develop a Theory of Change
    Example of a Theory of Change (for Community Collaboration)
    Examples of the Theory of Change
    Special Topics About Theory of Change
    Training and Resources About the Theory of Change

    Also, consider
    and Framework for Developing Logic Models
    Related Library Topics

    Basic Overview of Theory of Change

    A system, such as a program, product, or program has a recurring set of activities,

    1. Inputs to the system, such as curriculum materials, funding, and expertise
    2. Processes that occur to the inputs, such as training, facilitations and
    3. Outputs from the processes, such as the number of students trained
    4. Changes in external resources, such as new knowledge, skills, and abilities
      among the students

    Logic models are often used to depict this flow of activities. However, what
    is missing from the logic models are the depiction and explanation of how those
    activities affect — or are supposed to affect — each other. The theory of
    change is extremely useful in that regard.

    A logic model can clearly depict the order of the phases in a systematic program,
    such as the training program above. However, it does not explain how those phases
    are closely integrated to produce the desired outcomes from the program. For
    example, the logic model does not explain the assumptions that program designers
    make when they conclude that certain processes will produce certain outputs
    and outcomes.

    The theory of change in the program explains those assumptions. It explains
    the assumed causes and effects that program designers can study in order to
    understand why a program works or does not work. The theory of change can also
    explain what others must do to duplicate or improve similar programs.

    The theory of change applies to almost any kind of designed system, including products,
    services, and programs. Thus, the concept can be extremely useful to any kind
    of organization or internal unit in the organization.

    of Change vs Logical Framework – what’s the difference?
    Between the Theory of Change and the Logic Model

    How to Develop a Theory of Change

    of Change – When to Use
    of Change (a how-to)
    of Change (another how-to)
    to Build a Theory of Change

    Example of a Theory of Change (for a Community

    The following example is based on this logic model for a community collaboration of several nonprofit organizations working together to accomplish a common overall change in the community. The reader
    is encouraged to print out that one-page model as he or she reads the following
    theory of change. During the example collaboration, the lead organization supports
    the organizational development of each partnering organization with assessments,
    training, coaching, and peer learning.

    Information in a theory of change is sometimes described in a reverse order
    of the parts of the logic model because the primary focus is on – and
    starts with – the expected outcomes.

    7. Community-level, long-term outcomes:

    • certain social issues will be resolved for a certain group of clients in
      certain geographic area(s)

    Program Activities:

    These desired outcomes are to reduce the occurrence of gang activity, youth
    violence, and child abuse and neglect among 12-21 year-olds in a certain area
    by the end of the 3-year Program. The amount of change and the indicators of
    those amounts for each social service might not yet be determined. Hopefully,
    the suggested degree of alignment between the participating organization’s
    program outcomes can come from the result of the upcoming community assessment
    and asset mapping. The occurrence and quality of these outcomes will be evaluated
    at the end of the Program.


    • The outcomes (impacts on clients) of the programs of each of the participating
      organizations in the Program are aligned with contributing to the desired
      community-level, long-term outcomes.

    6. Long-term outcomes in each of the participating organizations: organizational
    effectiveness and positive impacts on the community

    Program Activities:

    Each organization will undergo capacity-building activities to implement the best
    practices in each of the major functions, for example, Boards, strategic planning,
    programs, marketing, staffing, finances, and fundraising.


    The Program’s capacity-building activities will result in each organization’s
    successful implementation of best practices that, in turn, will achieve effectively
    organizational and program effectiveness for each organization and, in turn,
    will result in positive impacts on the community.

    5. Intermediate outcomes in each organization: new skills and abilities for
    the personnel in the organizations

    Program Activities:

    Each organization’s personnel will learn about the best practices needed
    in each common function in an organization in order to achieve a highly effective
    organization and that personnel will apply those new skills to develop those
    new abilities.


    The Program’s methods and short-term outcomes will produce sufficient
    skills for those personnel to implement best practices and capacity building.

    4. Short-term outcomes in each organization: new knowledge for personnel in
    the organizations


    Personnel in each organization will gain new knowledge about the necessary
    best practices in the most important functions in nonprofits in order to develop
    high-performing nonprofits.


    The Program’s methods will produce sufficient knowledge about best practices
    and capacity building, along with indicators toward that knowledge.

    3. Tangible outputs for each organization

    Program Activities:

    Tangible results will include, for example, valuation plans, assessments and
    reports, action plans, strategic plans, training sessions, coaching sessions,
    peer learning sessions, coaches’ notes, facilitators’ notes and
    status reports.


    1. The Program actually uses the desired methods according to the eight principles
      for successful capacity building, as suggested in the Human Interaction Research
      study (listed below in the “Program methods …” section).
    2. The Program methods actually produce these recurring outputs.
    3. Establishment of best practices, and subsequent organizational and program
      effectiveness will proceed through short-term outcomes (knowledge about the capacity
      building), intermediate outcomes (skills to use capacity building to implement
      best practices) and long-term outcomes (having implemented the best practices).
    4. These recurring outputs will contain sufficient information about the status
      of implementation of the best practices such that various levels of outcomes
      can be ascertained.

    2. Program methods/interventions (capacity building activities)

    Program Activities (capacity building activities):

    The Program’s methods/interventions are designed according to the eight
    principles for capacity-building effectiveness, which are:

    1. Comprehensive (comprehensive assessments are done and a variety of capacity
      building activities are used, including assessments, awards, training, coaching,
      peer learning, etc.).
    2. Customized (according to the life cycle and culture of the organization
      via assessment and interviews).
    3. Competence-based (capacity building plans are customized to the organization’s
      resource level).
    4. Timely (capacity-building plans are scheduled according to the organization’s
      resource level).
    5. Peer-connected (a time-tested, peer coaching model is used).
    6. Assessment-based (each organization is assessed via a variety of methods,
      including two different organizational assessment tools and interviews).
    7. Readiness-based (each organization’s readiness is assessed via a readiness
      checklist and interviews).
    8. Contextualized (capacity building continually accommodates/adjusts for other
      current activities within and around the organization).


    1. Each of the organizations will participate as expected in the Program.
    2. Program personnel will be trained and effective in delivering Program services.
    3. The Program’s capacity-building methods ultimately will guide participants
      to implement and operate the best practices.

    1. Inputs to the Program


    Among the inputs are nonprofit organizational performance “best practices”
    as defined by the United Way Management Indicators Checklist, which is a comprehensive
    organizational assessment tool designed by 20 nonprofit organizational development
    consultants. The best practices are itemized as approximately 170 specific behaviors
    within a nonprofit organization. The best practices will be embellished with
    best practices for sustaining a successful collaboration among the participating

    Other inputs are Program funding, eight participating organizations, consultants,
    trainers, coaches, capacity building “best practices” and facilities.


    1. The Program’s selected “best practices” are those that
      together, when implemented, will achieve organizational and program effectiveness
      for each organization. The definition of “organizational effectiveness”
      has long been under scrutiny. Thus, this Program adopts these operating definitions.
      An “effective” program achieves desired outcomes among its targeted
      group of clients in the timeframe desired. Also, an “effective”
      the organization has ongoing high-quality operations that support ongoing effective
    2. The selected organizations each have programs that, together, achieve the
      desired community-level outcomes.
    3. These best practices can be organized into the funder’s mandated four
      areas of outcomes for each participating organization, including development
      of leadership (Board and staff), organizational systems, program operations
      and community engagement/awareness.

    Articles About the Basics of the Theory of Change

    What is
    Theory of Change?
    is this thing called ‘Theory of Change’?
    Theory of Change
    of change basics: A primer on theory of change
    Theory of change
    Does Theory of Change Work?

    Examples of the Theory of Change

    Theory of Change
    – Examples
    of Theory of Change in Health Interventions
    can a Theory of Change framework be applied to short-term international volunteering?
    of Change for Strategic Planning
    of Theory of Change in Project Evaluations
    Theories of Change for Information Society Impact Research

    Special Topics About Theory of Change

    Evaluating a Theory of
    Change Framework
    Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid
    How to and how not to develop
    a theory of change to evaluate a complex intervention

    Training and Resources About Theory
    of Change

    Center for Theory of Change
    of Change Training Curriculum
    of Change for Development
    of change (numerous articles)

    For the Category of Evaluations (Many Kinds):

    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

    Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

    Related Library Topics

    Recommended Books