Theories of Change were developed as an approach to planning and evaluation in the 60s. Theory of Change (ToC) has been influenced by Freirean thinking on how to create social change by empowering individuals (James C. Theory of change review: a report commissioned by Comic Relief; 2011). A ToC was developed by Weiss and others within the tradition of theory-driven evaluation. (Weiss C. Nothing as practical as good theory: exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. In: Connell JP, editor. New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: concepts, methods, and contexts. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute; 1995. p. 65–92). Despite some fundamental differences in their theoretical underpinnings, many of these approaches are used interchangeably or together (Blamey A, Mackenzie M. Theories of change and realistic evaluation. Evaluation. 2007;13(4):439–55. doi:10.1177/1356389007082129).
ToC gives a detailed and direct understanding of the links between activities that lead to the desired goals. This understanding also leads to better evaluation and measure of progress and in the long term an understanding of impact both planned and unplanned. It as an approach describes how a programme brings about specific long-term outcomes through a logical sequence of intermediate outcomes (Vogel I. Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development. UK: Department for International Development (DFID); 2012).
ToC is often developed using a backward mapping approach which starts with the long-term outcome and then maps the required process of change and the short- and medium-term outcomes required to achieve this (Andersen A. A community builder’s approach to theory of change: a practical guide to theory development. New York: The Aspen Insitute; 2004). During this process, the assumptions about what needs to be in place for the ToC to occur are made explicit as well as the contextual factors which influence the ToC. Additional elements of a ToC can include beneficiaries, research evidence supporting the ToC, actors in the context, sphere of influence, strategic choices and interventions, timelines and indicators. These elements are usually presented in a causal pathway/ diagram and/or narrative summary (Vogel I. Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development. UK: Department for International Development (DFID); 2012).
ToC causal pathway is a detailed and visual description of how and why an expected change is likely to occur in a certain context/setting. This describes what we do? ie activities/initiatives (outputs), so that we reach the various milestones which would lead to our desired goals.
It first identifies ‘what success would look like?’ i.e Our ‘vision’ and maps backwards from this to identify all conditions (outcomes) that must be in place and what assumptions we have made to achieve those outcomes?
ToC differs from other theory-driven approaches to evaluation despite similar origins. For example, although logic models outline the inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes of a programme in a similar manner to ToC, they can be rigid and do not make explicit the causal pathways through which change happens in the way that ToC does (De Silva MJ, Breuer E, Lee L, Asher L, Chowdhary N, Lund C, et al. Theory of Change: a theory-driven approach to enhance the Medical Research Council’s framework for complex interventions. Trials. 2014;15:267. doi:10.1186/1745-6215-15-267).