The good and the bad about the Theory of Change

  • ToC provides a comprehensive description of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a certain context.
  • ToC takes the complexity and dynamic nature of a context into account. It analyses the many facets involved and examines the relationships between them. As such, it doesn’t force you to simplify the road to change in a limited number of steps or to see it as a singular path of cause and effect (which is often a critique on logical framework approaches).
  • TOC can help setting up a dialogue between stakeholders. Once the ToC has been formulated (diagram and/or text) it can be used to communicate your work clearly to other colleagues, partners, donors, etc.
  • ToC gives you a better understanding of the links between activities (or projects) and the change you want to achieve (the goals). It allows you to understand what is necessary on top of / next to your own efforts and how other factors can strengthen or hinder your activities. As such, it fills in the gap (sometimes called the Missing Middle) between a programme or change initiative (your activities) and the ultimate goals in terms of (societal) change.
  • ToC makes assumptions and other unsaid things explicit. By explicitly dealing with long-held assumptions, Theory of Change thinking can also support innovation and ‘out of the box’ thinking
  • Because of this clearer understanding of the complete picture, you will be able to do better planning – although ToC doesn’t give you a ready-made planning method.
  • ToC allows for better evaluation, because progress is express in terms of the realisation of the different outcomes that are necessary to achieve the goals (rather than just monitoring the progress on outputs of activities). ToC describes the story of how change is expected to happen and because this is clearly described it is a good base to assess any long-term change. However ToC doesn’t provide you with clear instructions on how to do this impact assessment: you will still have to identify the appropriate impact assessment/evaluation methodologies.

  • One particular danger is that the chart of drawing of the goal(s), outcomes, interventions, assumptions and their relations can become so complex that no-one understands it anymore. This is also known as ‘Death by diagram’. A related danger is that the concept of the artwork becomes more important than the content, so that it looks nice and simple but doesn’t explain anymore how change actually can be achieved.
  • Some organisations start with ToC because they find other approaches too long, complex and cumbersome. However ToC does require at least as much effort to do it will. Maybe even more, as there is a bigger need to establish contacts, partnerships and so on to be able to see the bigger picture. As an organisation, you need an involvement that is bigger than the usual scope of your projects/programmes.
  • Sometimes organisations want to introduce ToC because they assume it will make monitoring, evaluation and learning easier. This is not the case: ToC puts as much emphasis on gathering information as any other approach. It may make it easier to identify change on impact/outcome level, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to invest in M&E (or PME, or PMEL…) anymore.
  • As an organisation, ToC is really only useful if you are willing to learn and adapt your strategy, thinking and interventions. This is not unique to Theory of Change, but if you’re not willing to do this, it will become just another ‘box ticking exercise’ where you go through the motions without capturing the essence.
  • The ToC is not really a planning tool. It can provide strategic orientation and a sense of direction in what outcomes have to be achieved before others can improve. But ToC in itself will not help you plan your intervention(s).
  • There is a danger that ToC becomes a top-down exercise again as many manuals speak of an exercise you can do with your team where you reflect on goals and outcomes and a pathway to change. It’s perfectly possible to create a Theory of Change with your own group, without any involvement of stakeholders or clients/beneficiaries. Unlike the Logical Framework Approach for instance ToC doesn’t provide clear instructions on how to involve (local) stakeholders in your project or strategy. But of course for many organisations such involvement is a given and its really in their organisational culture and DNA.
  • The ‘Omnipotent Organisation’: when an organisation does a good job to identify a whole host of interdependent but different types of outcomes and then says ‘and we will change all of the above’. This happens in circumstances where the (donor)organisation is virtually the only actor left standing and both the local civil society and government is very weak. Then there’s the danger that the organisation will claim that it will achieve all these changes, although it doesn’t really have the expertise or the resources to do so. A similar scenario is that of ‘Showing the flag’: a really big, well-funded organisation that prefers to do it all alone so that it can claim all the positive effects for the glory of its government or international donor (the flag in question). While this is not exclusively linked to ToC, there is a danger that the mapping exercises lead to taking too much on one’s plate rather than sticking to what one knows best (and collaborate with others for the rest).

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