Build a TRUE Theory of Change to Ensure your Organization Truly has IMPACT!

As a nonprofit leader, how can YOU maximize the chances that your organization will  achieve the meaningful impact it exists to achieve?

Many nonprofit leaders and supporters sense that their organizations lack the kind of powerful momentum it takes to achieve the big goals they exist to achieve.  One of the best ways to build great organizational momentum for achieving great impact is to build a clear and true theory of change.  At a most basic level, your theory of change identifies your big purpose, what it looks like when you’re achieving that, and the strategies and activities you use to achieve that goal. 

The last 3 posts addressed what a theory of change is, why it’s important that it is CLEAR, and the steps for becoming clear about your Theory of Change.  This post goes on to the next step and encourages you to get honest about the TRUTH of your Theory of Change—answering the question –

Do our organization’s activities TRULY lead to the kind of impact we’re in business to achieve?

In other words, once you are CLEAR about your Theory of Change, you need to determine whether it is TRUE. 

Many nonprofit organizations function for long periods of time with a false theory of change. Organizational longevity doesn’t prove that the organization is making the intended difference. Many nonprofit organizations capture information about the number of people they serve.  And that’s important.  But, demonstrating the provision of services doesn’t tell us anything about how effective the organization is at achieving the intended impact. 

Let’s look at the example of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.  I describe its theory of change very simply as follow:   

Lecture youth about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and urge abstinence…

                                                                                                            –>Youth will abstain from risky behaviors

For many years, the DARE program was everywhere.  Millions of dollars were invested. But research indicated it was not achieving the desired results.  In fact, after years of research there was some evidence that the DARE program increased drug and alcohol use!  I knew some wonderful people involved with the DARE program and those research results were painful!

Every nonprofit leader I’ve met wants to make a real, true difference in the world.  But how do we know whether our program is achieving the desired effect?  Leaders can improve the likelihood that their programs are having the desired effect by testing their Theory of Change—even against logic and the information that exists in the world. 

In the case of the DARE program , since the research kept indicating that the program wasn’t working as intended, the adults involved invested time and energy in understanding better how to actually help youth make better choices.  They thought about some of the available information about adolescents.  Here are a couple of facts about youth:  1) they are not inclined to worry about risks as much as adults do, so emphasizing risks with them has less effect than we think it should; and 2) youth are at a stage of life where they increasingly need to make their own decisions– and they tend to rebel against adults trying to impose their will on them.  

The more they looked at it, the clearer it became that bringing in a police officer (authority figure) to warn children and youth about risks was not likely to be as effective as they would like.  In fact, it might provoke the opposite response from the one desired– youth might be more likely to try drugs and alcohol because the adults were telling them not to– and it seems that is how it worked!

Using these insights and insights gained from research on behavior change, they decided to shift the program from a “drug focus” to a “healthy decision focus.”  The new amd improved Theory of Change could be described (very simply) as follows: 

Provide youth with information to support smart decisions relative to sex and substance use.  And teach them skills for resistance and avoidance of unhealthy behaviors…

                                        –>Youth will endorse healthy norms and attitudes for sexual activity and substance use and                                                     demonstrate capacity to resist poor choices

Fortunately, the new and improved program is effective in achieving the desired results.  Participants in the New DARE Program are better able to resist poor choices and make better choices relative to drugs and alcohol (Amy Nordrum, The New DARE Program—This One Works, Scientific American, September 10, 2014).   So, it’s a very good thing they reconsidered their Theory of Change!

So, tell the truth now– how clear and how true is the Theory of Change that underpins your mission-based organization??

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach,,

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