The Theory of Change

This topic will cover:

What is the Theory of Change?

For some, the Theory of Change (ToC) is a process of ongoing learning about how change happens, while for others it refers to the diagram or model itself which illustrates the process of change.

In reality, it is both. For the purposes of this toolkit, the focus will mainly be on creating and using a diagram or model illustrating the process of change.

The key features of the Theory of Change have been touched upon in our discussion of Theory-based approach. Drilling down in more detail, the following points are worth adding:

  • Anything with the word theory seems an unlikely starting point for a simplified approach to M&E. But that depends of course on the level of sophistication of the theory and presupposes that it is actually is a theory.
  • It is perhaps more accurate to refer to your best guess as to how change is likely to happen. Your thinking might be quite sophisticated and research-based or it might be more intuitive and draw on your own experience. Usually, it is both.
  • Maybe you have been to Namibia and read evaluations and other reports. You come up with the following ToC: the way to reduce the sexual abuse of under-age girls in Namibia is to tackle alcoholism among male Namibian schoolteachers charged with educating such girls.
  • The ToC tends to be top-down, usually drawn up by ‘experts’ in the country office, rather than through anything resembling a participatory process.
  • “The theory of change explains how you see the world, and how change happens and how you are going to intervene based on that understanding. The log-frame then becomes a management and measurement tool for making resource decisions. It is good for defining success but not for defining reality.” (Julian Barr, ITAD)
  • Theory of change thinking then is viewed as encouraging a broader view of change beyond the immediate programme that encompasses the realities of the context – social, political, technical and environmental.

Constructing a Theory of Change

To learn how to construct a Theory of Change, click here. Note that broadly similar methods have been developed by Nesta and the Open University., There is also the Results Chain Approach, the Force Field Method and our recommended approach, namely building the ToC into the 1-2-3 Method.

Pros and Cons


  • Helps to explain both how and why change takes place
  • Can be relatively straightforward or more complex
  • Does not follow a rigid ‘one size fits all’ format
  • Encourages NGOs and others to really think about what their project is trying to do and what assumptions they are making
  • It can help you adjust your project in ways that increase its prospects of success
  • It can help you identify intermediate outcomes
  • It enables organisations to think about their work and their organisation more deeply


  • It can end up being over-simplified, over-complicated or simply wrong with arrows connecting boxes in ways that could never be possible
  • Its value is not always recognised by funders
  • It can throw up challenging findings (were your assumptions completely wrong, where you were barking up the wrong tree)

For key differences between the Theory of Change and logframe, click here.

Going Further: Theory of Change

Here is a list of additional resources should you want to discover more about the Theory of Change:

  • DFID report
  • Better evaluation
  • Theory of Change online software tool
  • blog
  • Webinar: Theory of Change)
  • 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.
  • Theory-based evaluation: Past, present, and future. New Directions for Evaluation76, 41–55
  • Weiss, C. H. (1997). How can theory-based evaluation make greater headway? Evaluation Review21, 501–524.Weiss, C. H. (1997).
  • Weiss, C. H. (2000). Which links in which theories shall we evaluate? New – Directions for Evaluation87, 35–45.

Where to next?

Click here to return to the top of the page and here to explore different methods for designing theories of change.

Once you have familiarised yourself with the traditional tools and approaches outlined in this section, you should be ready to try out the Full or Quick 1-2-3 Method.