GET CLEAR: Build a CLEAR Theory of Change to Build Great Organizational Momentum

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

Everyone knows that nonprofit and not-for-profit organizations exist to make a positive difference in the community.   In fact, each ought to exist to make a particular positive impact. 

But we all know of mission-driven organizations and social institutions in the US which have persisted for long periods of time, with major investments of time, energy, and money without ever achieving the kind of impact they intend. 

Now, with the aggressive movement to demonize the poor in the United States and gut social programs, it is more important than ever that nonprofit leaders do everything they can to ensure that the organizations they lead achieve real, positive impact in the community.  We must work to ensure these organizations make the difference they purport to make– in order to fulfill our fiduciary obligations, to gain real rewards from our work, and to protect safety net programs for those who need them.  

One of the first and perennial responsibilities of mission-based leaders in this regard is to reflect upon the organization’s theory of change—what are we trying to change and how?  When we spell it out, does it even make sense?

Can you think of social programs with strategies and activities that don’t logically seem to lead to the stated purpose? 

I studied teen sexual decision-making intensively for many years and spoke with hundreds of youth to learn what helps and what doesn’t for getting them to slow down and be more thoughtful about these important, potentially life-changing decisions.  That experience led me to be very critical of abstinence-based programs, which I understood to be based on a theory of change that seems to make sense– until you think about it in greater depth.  A theory of change for abstinence-based programs could be simply stated like this:

Lecture youth about dangers (of drugs, alcohol, smoking, sexual activity) and urge abstinence  –> youth will abstain from risky behaviors

It’s easy to understand how well-intended adults could believe in this theory of change, given that it is probably the approach most of us grew up with and we don’t know what else to do.  But, when you study adolescent development and learn how teens think, you realize that they are wired to experiment with adult behaviors, resist adult control, and achieve independence– and that lecturing youth to abstain from risky activities is not logically going to be very effective in influencing them.

When you incorporate what’s known about decision-making, adolescent development, and the most effective ways to influence others, you might develop a theory of change that looks a little less simple but is more likely to work– like this:  

Provide youth with information to support smart decisions relative to sex and substance use and teach them skills for resistance and avoidance of risky behaviors –> youth will endorse healthy norms and attitudes for sexual activity and substance use and demonstrate capacity to resist poor choices

When leaders work to thoughtfully spell out their theory of change, there are many benefits:

  • They can better design programs and services that have integrity
  • They have a better foundation for making good leadership decisions and taking decisive action
  • Supporters can seek programs which have theories of change they believe in
  • It is easier to test whether a program truly works or not

What is the theory of change in your favorite mission-based organization?  Does it make logical sense?

In most cases, we must be CLEAR about our theory of change before we can have any confidence that we will achieve great impact.  In my next post, I will outline specific steps for getting clear about your program’s theory of change

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