Using Theory Of Change To Positively Impact Your Programs

June 10, 2023

The first step in setting your organization up for an effective measurement and evaluation strategy is to develop a ‘program theory of change’: but what exactly does that mean?

A program theory of change explains how you and your staff expect an intervention (e.g. your program) to produce the impacts you intend. In simpler words, a theory of change is a roadmap that you and your team can use to build programs that will help your nonprofit’s reach your goals. Once you agree upon a theory for change, you can identify what types of program data need to be collected and how program data should be analyzed, and use this data for reporting purposes.

But how exactly should your nonprofit develop a theory of change? And, how exactly can a theory of change support your nonprofit in not only developing its programs, but ensuring that those programs remain effective or improve over time? The truth is, there are many options for developing your nonprofit’s theory of change, that can all lead to program success. The key is to figure out which one works best for your particular organization, but there are many universally agreed upon first steps that you and your nonprofit can follow.

How to Develop a Program Theory of Change

The first step in developing any good theory of change should be a good situation analysis. A situation analysis includes identifying the problem that your program seeks to address, the potential consequences of this problem, and the opportunities your program has to create change as related to this problem. For example, a new food security nonprofit might identify their primary problem as a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables for a local, low-income neighborhood. The potential consequences of this problem are that children and families eat cheap, unhealthy foods as the bulk of their diets which leads to heart and cholesterol problems down the line. Finally, the opportunities this nonprofit has in developing a program that distributes fresh fruits and veggies may be increased long-term physical, mental and emotional health for local children and parents.

Next, a nonprofit should clarify which aspects of the overall problem their particular program will address, and identify the outcomes and impacts that it intends to produce. So, for our example, perhaps the specific problem that’s addressed through the food security program is increasing accessibility to these foods. This may include working with local grocery stores to ensure that fresh fruits and veggies are in plentiful stock and affordable, or to provide subsidies to low-income families designated for fruit and veggie purchases who otherwise couldn’t afford them. One outcome intended through this program might be to increase the number of children eating fresh foods every day in a local, low-income neighborhood.

How a Theory of Change Improves Programs Over Time

Theories of change support effective impact evaluations and measurements, and impact evaluations and measurements inform decisions on program changes and how to improve programs over time. Using our example again, a good theory of change would show how providing subsidies to families purchasing fruits and veggies is intended to contribute to the nonprofit’s desired outcome. Is the idea that restricted subsidies incentivize families to purchase fruits and veggies, and the right amounts of fruits and veggies consumed daily are ideal for one’s health? Are there other environmental or cultural factors that may also impact the program’s potential to improve health outcomes for local families?

An impact evaluation driven by a good theory of change will quickly reveal changes that need to be made in your programs, because a good theory of change will show where your programs fall short in making positive results possible. For example, if ‘intermediate results’ like successful distribution of fruit and veggie subsidies to low-income local families are not achieved, then how can a nonprofit expect to achieve their overall intended outcome of comprehensively improving health for low-income families? Theories of change will help to
identify these smaller issues, and provide your nonprofit a step-by-step, manageable framework for ensuring that your programs are as successful and impactful as possible.

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