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QUESTION 1: I am a newcomer in ToC. What is it about?

Different organisations think quite differently about the term ‘theory of change’ (see also QUESTION 6).


On this portal, ‘theory of change’ (ToC) refers to the understanding an organisation, project, network or group of stakeholders has about how political, social, economic, and/or cultural change happens, and its contribution to such a change process. So ToC thinking is, therefore, the process of developing that understanding and using it to reflect continually in ways that allow for adaptation and checking of assumptions.

A theory of change can be represented visually or as a narrative. Often both are needed – the description allows for in-depth discussion of power analysis, politics of change, needs and choices, actors involved. In addition, the visual representation allows for a short summary that facilitates discussion and communication about what a project or organisation does.

Our first e-discussion led us to document a broad understanding of what ‘theory of change’ thinking included. It emphasises the politics of change, values and power analysis. And it connects the personal and organisational values and context of change to the strategies for action.

Simple approaches can be useful, especially for those who are new to the whole idea. How tools are used is important for the quality of the discussions and the understanding that is generated. See QUESTION 9 on facilitating and building capacity with ToC.




On the right hand side you will find several documents with a general introduction to Theory of Change. 


A. Hivos' view to Theory of Change

This Hivos Policy Brief from 2014 explains Hivos’ understanding and use of the concept ‘Theory of Change’.


B. Theory of Change – a thinking and action approach to navigate in the complexity of social change processes

In general terms, this guide by Iñigo Retolaza summarizes the core of the contents and methodological steps that are implemented in a Theory of Change design workshop. As is already known, this thinking-action focus is also applied to institutional coaching processes and to designing social change and development programs.

The first part of the guide describes some theoretical elements to be considered when designing a Theory of Change applied to social change processes. It is obvious that there are many other aspects that have to be taken into account. Nevertheless, some of the ones that considered being fundamental (based on field experience) are summarized here. The second part of the document describes the basic methodological steps to be implemented throughout the process when designing a Theory of Change. In order to reinforce this practical part, a Theory of Change workshop route is attached hereto hoping it will help to illustrate the dynamics to be developed in a workshop of these characteristics.


C. A Theory of Social Change

Doug Reeler's theory of social change is proposed through this paper as one small contribution to a larger body of theorising. This paper can be seen as an observational map to help practitioners, whether field practitioners or donors, including the people they are attempting to assist, to read and thus navigate processes of social change. In the different sections of this paper, Reeler reviews different theories of social change (emergent, transformative and projectable change) and seeks to bring them together into something that is more integrated, recognising the diversity of social change. He makes the leading ideas, values and purposes behind his thinking explicit and reflects upon the challenges of reading change processes. At the end, the implications of different approaches on social change for development practices as well as for PME&R systems are given attention.


D. ToC and the wider picture

Funnell and Rodgers have recently written a new book: Purposeful Programme Theory: effective use of Theories of Change and Logic Model (Sue C. Funnell and Patrica J. Rodgers, 2011 published by JosseyBass).

This book manages to provide a comprehensive introduction to program theory and its relation with Theory of Change and Theory of Action. There is a chapter on ToC (chapter 7) but also other chapters are worthwhile to read. It explains the history of Program Theory, relating to your specific circumstances, developing and representing program theory (combining the process with ToC, Theory of Action, representing your ToC and ToA and critiquing your theory), necessary resources for ToC and logic models, and, finally, using Program Theory (including ToC) for M&E and causal inference. The book has a wealth of clear examples from various sectors and different contexts and is very helpful in clarifying some recurrent debates on planning and M&E terminologies.


E. Comic Relief Theory of Change review

This report was commissioned by Comic Relief and written by Cathy James, an independent consultant. It aims to draw together Comic Relief staff and partners’ experiences in using theory of change; to identify others in development that are using theory of change and analyse their different approaches and experience; and to capture learning from everyone to promote debate, and to help inform what agencies using or advocating for the use of theory of change do next.


F. DFID 2012 Review of ToC practice by Isabel Vogel

Isabel Vogel has finished an extensive review of the ToC practice in August 2012, commissioned by DFID. The document provides a rich overview of ToC application in various sectors with many examples. Also challenges are identified and suggestions provided how to deal with them. You can read the executive summary here and as well as the whole report.