Why use a Theory of Change?

Author:
United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID)
Date:
September 2021
15 min read

A ToC is an incredibly effective methodology to plan and communicate the rationale for change, program goals, and objectives. While there are critiques, for example, developing a ToC requires an investment of resources and lasting commitment. The outcomes of the ToC process are incredibly beneficial to any organisation seeking to achieve positive development goals.  
In order to present a balanced view for ‘why use a Theory of Change?’ – we have reviewed and summarised The use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development 
 
Why should I read it? 
Providing an independent review, this is the comprehensive document for anyone looking to understand ToC. From defining ToC, to outlining the intricacies of the role of donors, Vogel leaves no stone unturned. This report applies a more critical and balanced perspective to the use of ToC frameworks. 
 
Who wrote it? 
The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) commissioned the review to Isabel Vogel, an independent evaluation consultant and expert in the field of international development. 
  
What is the point of this document? 
The Theory of Change (ToC) approach has seen significant uptake within the international development community. This paper seeks to critically review the approach, to determine the efficacy of ToC, to weigh up its strengths and weaknesses, and provide a comprehensive evaluation. Despite critiques, ToC is identified as the best approach as of present, with no alternatives offered or suggested. Although the logframe model is discussed as an alternative, the paper concludes that it should be used in a complimentary manner, with logframes utilised in areas related to performance management. 
 
Who is it meant for? 
This paper is for those within the international development community, as a guide to help determine whether Theory of Change is an adequate method of achieving progress in development goals. 
  
Key takeaways 
With the right investment of time, resources, and commitment, a ToC is a flexible way to think through fundamental questions to avoid ineffective solutions.  A clear and effective ToC can inspire innovations and improvements in programmatic strategies, and strengthen the potential of programs to support the positive development outcomes.  
Here is a collection of notable insights from the report  

  • Log-frame and ToC. Before a ToC framework was used, log-frames were the preferred tool for planning developmental projects. The ToC framework was developed as an alternative, due to the overly linear and narrow nature of log-frame planning. This review does not discard log-frame modelling, but instead suggests that it is incorporated alongside a ToC. This report also suggests that log-frames can be utilised as a performance management tool. 

  

  • Evidence and ToC. The role of evidence in developing a ToC should be to challenge assumptions, rather than confirm them. A wide array of different sources including academic, community, qualitative, and quantitative information should be consulted to develop a wider understanding of the environment in which change is being sought. Furthermore, the data collection promoted by ToC can help in detangling complex situations, but there is still further study to be done in this area. 

 

  • Evaluation in ToC. In an environment in which immediate and measurable results are expected, ToC can be difficult to implement due to its long-term focus. The review suggests that a different perspective is needed, with a greater emphasis upon discovering causal relationships and the subtle ways in which change is being achieved. Log-frame can be incorporated into this, measuring the ways in which contributions from a broad theory of change play a role in measuring higher-level outcomes. 

 

  • ToC and the product cycle. ToC necessitates a new viewpoint to be adopted by all participants. Instead of viewing themselves as individuals, participants should instead view themselves as key contributors to the collective effort. This inclusivity extends itself to donors, grant makers and staff alike. Making a commitment to a shared vision of a ToC is integral to the operation of an organisation. Emphasis is also placed on avoiding a “compliance” system within an organisation, in which the processes of developing a ToC are rushed through to satisfy requirements. Instead, the implementation of a ToC should be perceived as a learning process that is beneficial to all. 

  
Critiques 
The main critique of utilising a ToC framework come from the subjective way in which the world is perceived, and the assumptions that underpin those perspectives. Any documented ToC will reflect the views of the people who contributed. Great emphasis is placed upon the recognition and documentation of assumptions to combat any potential bias. 
A ToC framework can be very challenging to work with due to the commitment and resources required. It is not a deliverable product with a defined timeframe, instead a living process that requires regular adjustments, observations, and reviews. A ToC does not operate on a fixed timeline with a conclusive outcome. 
 
What makes a quality ToC? 
Key criteria are identified to help determine whether a ToC is of a high standard 

  • Group discussion and consultation, as participatory as possible 
  • Clear grounding in the context, informed by local knowledge and stakeholder perspectives 
  • Sufficient time and resources allocated to prepare an in-depth analysis 
  • Clear conceptualisation of the impact and its pathways 
  • All possible assumptions and hypotheses have been explored 
  • Uncertainties, risks, and knock-on effects are captured 
  • Progress and change process markers are identified 

  
 
 
Read full article: 
Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development (120min, PDF) 
 
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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