The Theory of Change approach (ToC), imported from America to the Netherlands some 10 years ago, can offer guidance. Ever since its introduction, MDF has been working with the ToC. We are happy to share our knowledge and experience in a series of 3 articles. In this first article we introduce you to the ToC, the second article will discuss the conditions for impact-oriented working, and in the third we clarify the consequences of having a ToC.

What is a Theory of Change?

It seems to be in fashion. The Theory of Change. More and more organisations are working with it. Many of those organisations do not exactly know how it works. This often results in what we used to refer to as an Objective Tree, or a Result Chain. Namely, a logically formulated set of goals linked in causal relationships.
However, you then miss the true power of a Theory of Change. So what is a ToC?
Research: A ToC helps you unravel, investigate, reflect and thus find out what is needed to realise the desired social change. In addition to the change necessary, a ToC also shows why the change will work. These assumptions and the accompanying substantiation make the Theory of Change real and bring the dreamed impact closer.
Playing field: A ToC offers room for several options and ambitions. It functions as a joint and shared change framework, a vision of change, where experimenting is encouraged. Learning by doing. A ToC leaves room for open ends and does not capture everything. Nor does it promise that everything described will be realised. In other words, it is not a planning tool.
Positive and impact-oriented: a ToC is developed by reasoning back from the change for society, the change in people's lives. You look at what works and what is needed. A ToC is not problem-driven, but impact-oriented.
Jointly: Drawing up a ToC only works if you do it together with those involved. Experts, policy makers, or people from the ‘target group’. By creating it together you also make use of invisible assets, relationships, knowledge of the context and stimulating energy.

How to create a ToC?

1. Dream

The Dream shows a changed vision for society. A clearly formulated image. Which is expressed in such a way that someone else can see it clearly. It is important that the target group is given a significant position in this. For example: opportunity and space to play for children in all parts of the Netherlands (Jantje Beton).

2. Conditions

The Conditions show what it takes to make that dream come true. What changes are needed to make the dream a reality? It is important that the actors who contribute to this are mentioned.

3. Assumptions and substantiation

The Assumptions make the dreamed change real. It does not stop with a wish or a vague plan, you make the change concrete, credible and grounded in prior experiences, knowledge or existing research. For each necessary change, you explain the causal relationship with the assumptions.

Three levels

Finally, we see ToCs on three levels. Various organisations develop a ToC and use it for the entire (own) organisation. This ToC offers guidance or is the leading strategy for everything the organisation wants to undertake. It serves as an umbrella under which the organisation operates.
The second form is the interorganisational ToC. This ToC provides a shared view of change and is drawn up by a number of organisations − for example in a partnership or alliance − around a common theme. An occasional ToC. Once the collaboration is over, this ToC can be put aside.
Finally, there is the specific ToC, a targeted elaboration of the overarching organisation ToC.
The Theory of Change: an impact-oriented change framework.

By Anne Marie van Raalten-Ligtenberg, Senior trainer & Consultant at MDF Training & Consultancy. Views expressed here are my own.

Article 2: Conditions, in your organisation, for impact-oriented working

Article 3: After creating the ToC: How to stay on track towards impact