What’s all the fuss about Theory of Change?

James Smalley, Development Officer for the Economic Impact project reflects on our latest training session and why Theory of Change is an important tool for the voluntary sector.

This month, I delivered a training session on Theory of Change, a tool to help charities think about and describe what they aim to achieve and how they hope to achieve it. Those of you in the loop may have been seeing a lot of talk recently about this tool and might be wondering why. Theory of Change itself is nothing new, in fact it has been around since the 1990s – how can an almost 30-year-old tool have relevance to voluntary sector groups today and suddenly be in fashion?

In my opinion, the short answer is professionalism. Over the last decade, scarcity of resources has led public sector commissioners to become selective about who they fund and what they want to achieve. Voluntary sector organisations of all sizes therefore have had to put more resource into showing what they can achieve and measuring that they actually achieve it. In short, smaller voluntary organisations have evolved from simply being groups that deliver social good to being professional service providers like their larger counterparts.

Tools like Theory of Change therefore are more relevant than they have ever been, ensuring that the activities charities deliver to their service users do lead to the long-term goals they claim to accomplish. Theories of Change are about showing your working – why do we assume activities in a community garden lead to reduced social isolation? Activities that do not lead to relevant outcomes are surplus to requirements; a waste of resources that hard-up charities cannot afford.

The process of creating a Theory of Change focuses you on what is important – your service users. By clearing your mind of all the ins and outs of actually running a charity (securing funding, staffing, finding volunteers) you can begin the process of asking: ‘where are we trying to get our users to? How do our planned interventions or activities help us get them there? What steps along the way do we need to ensure our users achieve before they can get to a desired outcome?

In essence, a Theory of Change is the foundation of charity strategy, evaluation and communication. In my view, it is an essential tool if you want to truly understand what your organisation is achieving and how you are getting there. For many people Theory of Change can seem too academic and full of jargon, however once you understand the general principles behind the tool it can become a practical visualisation of your service user’s path to success.

If you’d like to know more about Theory of Change, VAL are holding another Theory of Change training session on 16 June. Otherwise, this handy guide by NPC will take you through a 10-step process to create your Theory of Change.

James Smalley

James Smalley is a Development Officer for VAL as part of the Economic Impact project. He is passionate about helping charities to understand, measure and communicate their long-term impact. You can contact James at james.s@valonline.org.uk or on Twitter at @JamesS_VAL