Build a CLEAR and TRUE Theory of Change to Achieve Great Momentum and Impact!

Build a CLEAR and TRUE Theory of Change to Build Great Organizational Momentum

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

 The nonprofit organizations I work with tend to have big, world-changing missions, such as:

  • Achieving social justice for individuals and groups who face discrimination
  • Helping people with serious mental illness live richer, fuller, and more productive lives
  • Reducing homelessness
  • Improving government and public policy

These are great and inspiring organizational purposes.  But, is it possible to build a nonprofit organization to fulfill a great purpose, sustain it for many years, expend lots of energy, offer lots of services, and still make very little difference in the world?  It’s sad to consider, but responsible leaders may find it worthwhile to do so.   Some of the common comments I hear from nonprofit leaders and supporters suggest this is more true than we would like, e.g. 

  • We have difficulty making decisions and moving initiatives forward.
  • I feel like we waste a lot of time.
  • We’re reaching lots of people, but it’s not clear that we’re making a real difference solving the problem we exist to solve.

How about if we frame the question more positively–

 As a nonprofit leader, how can you maximize the chances that your organization will achieve the kind of real, 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. We can look at various angles to understand the problem– the business model, the leadership, the staffing, the funding, etc.  But, too often, leaders fail to address one of the greatest opportunities for building great organizational momentum– that is to build a clear and true theory of change.   

What is a 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.  A theory of change explains WHAT your Big Purpose is and HOW you believe that is achieved. 

Let’s take the example of a mission to reduce homelessness to illustrate two different theories of change for achieving that. Different organizations address the goal in different ways, based on different theories of change.

  1. If you know that many people with serious mental illness became homeless after deinstitutionalization, you may develop a program to reduce homelessness that looks like this:  Give homeless people behavioral healthcare services –> once their behavioral health condition improves, they will be functioning well enough to obtain housing –-> REDUCED HOMELESSNESS
  2. Another group may develop a program based on this theory of change:  Give homeless people a home first–> once they are safely housed, provide them additional services as needed (e.g. job services, behavioral healthcare services) –>  REDUCED HOMELESSNESS

You can see from these two examples that a different theory of change will lead to a completely different kind of program.  Does this matter?  Yes!  Because some approaches are more likely to affect real change than others.  In fact, recent research suggests that the order of services matters a great deal for reducing homelessness– providing housing FIRST produces much greater results than starting with other services.  Apparently, people are more successful achieving the necessary behavioral health improvements and obtaining gainful employment once they have safe and stable homes– and it doesn’t work as well to reverse the order of services.

When your program’s theory of change is unclear, your leadership is likely to be more disorganized than you want and your organization will tend to lack momentum and impact.   It will be like trying to knock down 10 bowling pins using a ping pong ball– no matter how skillfully you hit the ball, it never knocks down even one pin!

It sounds so basic—but it really is one of the first things you must do as a nonprofit leader.  And it’s something you must return to with some regularity—getting clear about WHAT change your organization exists to achieve—and HOW you believe that is accomplished.  My conversations with nonprofit leaders suggest that this is a basic step many have failed to successfully complete.

Upcoming posts will guide readers through the steps of building a CLEAR Theory of Change, and working to make sure their Theory of Change is TRUE—in other words, that the approach(es) they’re using actually lead to the desired results and impact.

Because a clear and true theory of change is foundational to achieving great impact as a mission-based organization!

What is the Theory of Change in your favorite nonprofit organization?

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