I have long been torn between my love and hate of theories of change (ToC). For planning advocacy interventions in a specific context, theories of change are great. Developing such a “ToC” comprises mapping successive outcomes into pathways leading to long-term improvements. This exercise allows organisations to understand their own vision of change. It helps deciding about the results on which they can focus in a broader constellation of actors working towards similar impacts for beneficiaries. It also provides clarity on one’s own assumptions.
The theory of change needs to be verified by an evaluation. The evaluator will wonder whether changes occurred as predicted or hoped-for, and in the sequence of that prediction. A theory of change allows interpreting findings gained through outcome harvesting or outcome mapping methods. Theories of change are nowadays considered necessary tools for evaluating advocacy.
Monster of confusion
Nonetheless, I find that many theories of change are tentacular monsters of confusion, attempting to predict pathways of changes for excessive large areas. They then become generalisations aiming to capture so many contexts that they do not have validity for any of them. They become the enemy of sharp strategic thinking and result in confusing communications about programmes. Theories of change for multi-country programmes, partnerships or coalitions working on various thematic areas only make sense when broken down to context-specific theories of change.
My advice to advocacy evaluators is simple: if you are confronted with one of those monsters, rebuild a sharper one for each specific context. For local programmes, make sure you verify the theory of change (after outcome harvesting), preferably together with the local organisations involved in the programme. If a theory of change was not developed a priori as part of the planning, you can construct the pathways of change that the planners must have had in mind when they planned the intervention. You’ll soon see that these theories of change are much easier to love!
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