An image design of the word "IG-ology" that includes scientific icons to depict each letter

Headshot of Isabel MarshHi, I'm Isabel Marsh, an Associate Consultant here at The Improve Group (IG). You might remember me from the IG-ology video "Hustle the Puzzle." I am excited to be here again to share some insights about the Theory of Change (ToC) methodology. ToC, as its name might hint, shows the thinking behind the actions an organization takes to create positive change. Additionally, the process of creating a Theory of Change is valuable in itself because everyone understands what their peers are thinking about an organization. This helps them get on the same page about change.

Theories of Change serve multiple purposes depending on the organizations' needs. A Theory of Change can serve as:

  • A visual representation to show with funders and key stakeholders how an organization is creating change
  • A clear and testable hypothesis about how the change will occur, which makes results more credible because they were predicted to happen in a certain way
  • An assessment of gaps in your programming or grantmaking
  • A blueprint for evaluation since the ToC can help you determine measurable indicators of success
  • A shared definition of success

Evaluators take different approaches when building ToCs. Before coming to IG, I used a more theoretical approach following the steps of Chen, and Funnel & Rogers. This way of creating ToCs is embedded in the development of a program theory and, requires developing a situational analysis - and an outcomes chain. It also entails an iterative validation process with key stakeholders of the organization.

IG teams follow a more practical approach in line with the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. This method to create ToCs is more participatory, which resonates with IG's Community-Responsive Approach. Through facilitation, IGers guide organizations and key community stakeholders in building the ToC based on their knowledge and experience.

During these workshops, participants identify desired long-term outcomes and the necessary preconditions (short- and medium-term outcomes) needed to achieve them. Additionally, we encourage participants to reflect on whether current organizational strategies will lead to the desired outcomes.

Regardless of the approach you take, the value of a strong ToC is undeniable. ToC creation encourages organization actors to reflect on the theories guiding their work, which helps them evaluate their achievements more rigorously.

Interested in learning more? Check us out at the American Evaluation Association’s 2019 conference, which takes place in our backyard this year at the Minneapolis Convention Center! My colleagues and I will be presenting 3:45-4:45pm on November 14 on how organizations have found practical applications for their Theories of Change, such as interpreting evaluation results with the theory as a lens.