Impact Practitioners

All you need to know about working with Theory of Change

By 13/10/2022

This 38-page guide written by Isabel Vogel for Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) research projects provides a comprehensive manual on working with a Theory of Change (ToC). 

The guide explains what the Theory of Change approach is about, its benefits, uses and how to develop it for your research programme. Although it was originally intended for ESPA researchers, its explanations and tips are applicable to any research programme. 

It is a very practical, easy-to-read resource providing a comprehensive overview of Theories of Change. It offers useful guiding questions and tips on how to approach the process. 

The guide is divided into four main chapters. The first chapter describes the Theory of Change (ToC) and the thinking behind the approach. The second chapter focuses on developing a ToC for your research project and the third chapter describes practical tips related to it. The final fourth chapter is dedicated to tools and further resources.

What is a Theory of Change? Vogel defines ToC both as a process and a product. ToC describes a sequence of events that are expected to lead to the desired outcome. It is usually captured in a diagram and an accompanying narrative. It maps out the anticipated links between your project, the issues and context you aim to influence, and the long-term outcomes. 

Why is a ToC useful for research projects? It can help you with the planning, implementation and impact assessment of your research project. Vogel sees the main benefit of ToC in making different views and assumptions about the change explicit. Additionally, ToC is a collaborative process which emphasises the importance of dialogue with stakeholders, acknowledging different viewpoints and various political, social and environmental realities. In short, a Theory of Change is an ongoing process of reflection on how change happens. 

The author argues that ToC is most effective when it is used right from the start of the research process. It can help you focus on the issue you’re aiming to influence, the context and the stakeholders. 

Quote from R2A Impact Practitioners Resource

Vogel identifies four main stages in developing the Theory of Change:
Stage 1: Analysing the context – an overview of the current state of the issue the project is aiming to influence (e.g. the social, political and environmental conditions, existing beliefs and practices and also stakeholders and networks and their receptiveness to new ideas and initiatives).

Stage 2: Defining the long-term change – a statement expressing the long-term change that the project is aiming to support. It should be realistic, specific and feasible, covering the intended benefits for specific stakeholder groups and the potential contribution of research to the change. 

Stage 3: Sequence of events – mapping the sequence of changes that lead to the desired outcome. At this stage, you explore the connections between your research and outcomes. Your mapping should logically progress from short-term changes, through medium to long-term impacts. The progression from one change to another should be plausible and logically robust, with no leaps of faith (such as hoping a single briefing paper will influence a change in practice). You also need to bear in mind that change isn’t a linear process. So, when working with a ToC, you should express the non-linear aspects and acknowledge uncertainties.

Stage 4: Making assumptions explicit – a critical reflection on the change process, the perspectives on change, the drivers and hypotheses about how the change can happen. Assumptions are the deeply held perceptions, things we believe to be true about a particular situation – it is important these will be explored and thought about when developing a ToC. 

For each stage, the document lists guiding questions and shares what information is likely to be generated along the way: this is particularly useful to those with little experience of developing a ToC. You can also see the ESPA Theory of Change that was produced using the guide which throws light on some of the processes and results.

Finally, the guide stresses the importance of regularly revising the ToC. If done properly, a Theory of Change can help you improve your programme design, implementation, evaluation and learning. 

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.