Theory of Change  

This example draws upon the author’s own experience in the field as well as a search of internet sources on the issue of Female Genital Mutilation. It recommends a number of data collection/ analysis methods in steps 2 and 3.

Your NGO wants to undertake a project to address female genital mutilation in Kenya. Your NGO includes specialists in media, drama and social care. You decide to use the Theory of Change approach.

How do you go about working out your theory?

STEP 1: Understand Context & Construct Theory of Change

Ideally, you will begin by doing some research. What other projects have already been carried out in this field? What research can you find on the internet or elsewhere? What does this say about what works and does not and in which contexts, particularly the Kenyan context where your local partner is located?

Here is an example of a FMG project in which the author of this site was involved. A documentary was created by Hannah Ratigan who has kindly agreed to share it with us.

Your research reveals the following information, drawn mainly from an authoritative DFID Report on FGM:

Female genital mutilation (FGM) or cutting is a practice that dates back thousands of years, mainly in West Africa and the Horn, and involves the removal of part of girls’ (often aged 0 to 14) genitalia. It results in physical, psychological and emotional damage, includes risks of hemorrhage and infection, is associated with complications at childbirth putting mothers and new-borns at risk. It is estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that 3 million girls a year in Africa alone are at risk of FGM and that 100-140 million women and girls have undergone the practice.

There is no health benefit to this non-therapeutic practice. It also breaks several UN conventions including the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, in the communities where it is practised, it is carried out because it always has been – it is simply part of life – on the basis that it is considered essential for marriage.

Even where there is awareness of the problems caused by FGM/C, the practice is continued because of the link to girls’ and women’s acceptability in society and to their marriageability. Societies which carry out FGM/C believe that they do so out of a genuine concern that girls need to be protected and controlled if they are to be able to be part of society. An individual family taking a decision alone not to cut their daughters would condemn their girls to a life of stigma and ostracism. Girls, therefore, are cut because it is considered to be their own interests within the societies they live in.

FGM is a deeply embedded social norm.: a pattern of behaviour that individuals prefer to conform to on condition that they believe that a) most people in their relevant network conform to it (empirical expectations) and that b) most people in their relevant network believe they ought to conform to it (normative expectations) (UNICEF). Research suggests that FGM is not halted by laws outlawing it, by urbanisation (and increased wealth) or even by the actions of diasporas.

The context has become more propitious in this respect with the UN’s Africa group calling for a ban in December 2012, with the African Union’s support for this and with attempts to halt the practice by the Kenyan government. However, top-down approaches are less likely to work than interventions at the community level aimed at enabling those communities to choose to change social norms and end this practice. A 2007 community empowerment project resulted in immediate changes to social norms which spread to 5000 villages by 2011.

Your own more tailored research, focusing on your local partner and its locality, also reveals that one of the local girls’ schools, which has recently begun accepting boys, is now home to a large number of rescued girls and that your local partner organisation is working closely with the school.

You are now ready to undertake your field trip and engage in discussions with stakeholders from the local community, schools and beneficiaries. It may also involve site visits, perhaps to the school concerned and to another school where girls are regularly cut or to the home of a local cutter or to the place where the cutting occurs.

You begin by seeking to gauge local perceptions and understanding of the issue of FGM. Try to elicit information on any previous anti-FGM projects, notably the most recent one conducted by an American NGO. Was it accompanied by proselytism? Has it created a base upon which to build? Or was it overly self-righteous and has it given rise to hostility in your target villages?

Now you can present the facts in a straightforward and condensed form to your group of stakeholders and beneficiaries and seek agreement on the desired end goal or long-term outcome. You end up agreeing that this desired long-term outcome is ‘to contribute towards an end to FGM in three local villages in a generation’.

You identify positive and negative forces that may impact on the chances of securing such a goal. The positive forces might include recent Kenyan government legislation prohibiting the use of FGM, the role of the UN and other donors in tackling FGM in the region of Kenya where you will be operating, high levels of employment, the presence of inspirational local leaders,  a concentration of refuges and high-performing schools, the presence of ethnic groups who do not practise FGM in the same region.

The negative forces may include existing high levels of FGM practice, the entrenched nature of social norms, the resistance from local elders, the loss of livelihood of cutters, the absence of refuges or ‘good’ schools, the absence of inspirational local leaders (women and girls in particular), an absence of understanding of the dangers of FGM and an absence of alternative initiation ceremonies that do not involve FGM.

Together with your group of stakeholders, you identify and weight these forces and then select the most important or relevant (to your skills and/ or to the focus of the project) to become specific objectives (by all means add indicators). You might select some of the following:

  1. To develop alternative initiation ceremonies attended by at least 50 percent of uncut girls aged 0 to 16.
  2. To identify Ambassadors against FGM amongst teaching staff and rescued girls.
  3. To develop early warning systems and awareness-raising programmes that will challenge social norms on FGM and early forced marriages.  
  4. To reduce, in three years, by 30% the incidence of FGM in four local Kenyan villages in the Narok region cutting.

So, your Theory of Change might be:

If we develop alternative initiation ceremonies attended by at least 60 percent of uncut girls and we identify Ambassadors against FGM amongst teaching staff and rescued girls and we develop an early warning systems and sensitisation programmes that will challenge social norms on FGM and early forced marriages then we will work successively towards our long term desired outcome of ending FGM in one generation in four Kenyan villages

Theory of Change Example

Theory of Change Completed Example

Theory of Change Fillable Grid


You would then think about the nitty-gritty of how this theory could work in practice. What outputs and what short- and medium-term outcomes would be expected?

The outputs might include ten fully signed up girl anti-FGM ambassadors and one initiation ceremony not involving FGM and one professionally delivered sensibilisation campaign.

You might say that because of your awareness-raising programme, families now seek the advice of local elders or local school teachers before taking any decision on FGM for their daughters. That would be a short-term outcome, and it would be linked to the assumption that your training programme had been delivered effectively and that the message would not simply be ignored or be rejected categorically.

You might identify as a medium-term outcome that at least one village desists from taking part in the annual cutting season ceremony. The assumption here might be that the presence of a high number of girl Ambassadors in this village, perhaps reinforced by the presence of ethnic groups that do not favour FGM, will act as the catalyst for this change.

A longer-term outcome might be the collective declaration by one or more village to cease this practice for their children and their children’s children and potentially for the partners selected by their children in marriage. This latter development, associated with the work of Tostan, would involve a more fundamental change of social norms, which might have diffusion effects more broadly beyond the programme. Needless to say, you may not be in a position to monitor or evaluate the longer-term effects of your programme but you may well still be in contact with your local partner who could keep you up to date.

STEP 2: Data Collection & Analysis

So, how are you going to evidence your claims? Using the 1-2-3 method, you have already successfully passed Step 1 and opted for a Theory of Change approach. You may decide that Step 2 might, in more literate societies, involve a questionnaire or survey aimed at identifying changes. Such a survey would be conducted at the start and end of the project.

Given the low literacy rates in areas where FGM is practised in Kenya, a survey would not make sense. A more effective approach is likely to involve one or perhaps two focus groups. You may decide that it is better to have the girls in a separate group as they may be intimidated if part of a group that is amenable to FGM practices.

Follow the advice given here on how to set up and conduct focus groups. Remember that these are vulnerable girls and ethical concerns are central to this process. So too is the need for you to do no harm.

The focus group may in this context wish to explore: What has the community learned from your training programme? How (if at all) individuals have changed their behaviour in the short to medium term?What they see as the successes or failures of your project? And, above all, whether they agree with the original theory of change? In other words, do they agree with the original Theory of Change and its assumptions? Or do they perhaps now take the view that girl ambassadors are powerless and that the focus should be more on reinforcing the capacity of local schools taking in more boys from families opposed to or neutral on FGM? In so doing, the school helps to create a space for future marriages for girls who have not been cut. This conclusion may lead to some alteration of your Theory of Change, which may mean that there is a greater focus on the schools and their inclusion of boys.

Needless to say, there would be a need to ensure that the boys concerned did indeed come from families with doubts about FGM or the boys and their families could become a threat within the schools. Some kind of vetting process might therefore be required.

STEP 3: Data Collection & Checking

You may then decide to drill down and focus on interviews with specific stakeholders, beneficiaries and even staff on your project. Again, you are seeking to establish whether your assumptions are correct; whether your short, medium and long term outcomes were achieved; and if so why, and, if not, why not.

Alternatively, you could use a case study, a particular class within the school or a purposive sample of Anti-FGM ambassadors selected from within the school.

Or you might opt for a Most Significant Change technique that homes in on the stories of teachers and girls affected by FGM. This latter technique, particularly if it is accompanied by participatory video techniques, can be particularly powerful and can deliver testimonials and moving stories that you can, as part of your ongoing fight against FGM, build into annual reports, evaluations and even funding bids.

Key informant interviews would be another alternative but participant observation would be too intrusive a tool in this sensitive context.

On the basis of step 3, do you find that your assumptions were correct and your outcomes achieved? How were those outcomes achieved? What did girl ambassadors do that was particularly effective or less effective? What was the most significant change and was it a direct result of your project? Or perhaps there were other causal factors at work that you had not identified or prioritised. Do you need to tweak or alter your ToC? Or are you on the right lines? If so, are you confident that your evidence stands up?

This Theory of Change developed out of FGM data from a recent DFID report and reports on an FGM project by Valley and Vale Community Arts.


– blog
– Webinar: Theory of Change)
DFID report
– Theory of Change Online Community:
– Theory of Change online software tool:
– Chen, H.-T. (1990). Theory-driven evaluations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
– Chen, H.-T. (1994). Theory-driven evaluations: Need, difficulties and options. Evaluation Practice15(1), 79–82.
– Funnell, S., & Rogers, P. (2011), Purposeful program theory: Effective use of theories of change and logic models. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
– Rogers, P. (2007), Theory-based evaluations: Reflections ten years on. New Directions for Evaluation114, 63–67.
– Weiss, C. H. (1997). How can theory-based evaluation make greater headway? Evaluation Review21, 501–524.Weiss, C. H. (1997).
– Theory-based evaluation: Past, present, and future. New Directions for Evaluation76, 41–55.
-Weiss, C. H. (2000). Which links in which theories shall we evaluate? New
– Directions for Evaluation87, 35–45.
-Weiss, C. H. (2003), On theory-based evaluation winning friends and influencing people. The Evaluation Exchange9(4), 1–5
– Mapping change – Using a theory of change to guide planning and evaluation
– Results chain logic models are most appropriate when all the activities are at the beginning of the process, and less useful when there are a series of activities throughout participants’ passage through a programme.For worked and quite detailed examples of theories of change, see

Where to next?

Click here to return to the top of the page and here to move on to the Quick 1-2-3 method (for rapid appraisals)