STEPS for Building a CLEAR Theory of Change

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

The nonprofit organization’s Theory of Change identifies its big purpose and the strategies and activities used to achieve that.  Generally, we must be CLEAR about our theory of change before we can have any confidence that we will achieve great, meaningful impact.   In this paper, I will outline specific steps for getting clear about your program’s theory of change.

  1. First, identify the important stakeholders for participating in this discussion.

I was director of a child and family mental health services department when a new managed care relationship required us to reconsider our intensive home-based services program.  The program had traditionally offered intensive services to families of children with serious psychiatric conditions for 1 – 2 years, with a goal to “stabilize” the children’s mental health status.  Lacking evidence that the expensive program was truly beneficial, the insurance company informed us they would consider funding a briefer program– closer to 3 months total.   Therapists and doctors involved with the program were dismayed , feeling they couldn’t be truly helpful to families under these circumstances.  We had to reconsider our theory of change and we wanted the input of various stakeholders —  therapists, psychiatrists, and managers, plus parents, teachers, social workers, and health care providers.  If a 3 month program could indeed be of value, we needed to be very clear what would be the purpose and theory of change for the much briefer program.   If staff had developed a new program without broader stakeholder input, it’s unlikely we would have built a program that would truly meet families’ needs.

  1. Get Clear about your Big Purpose—your mission — the reason your organization exists.  It’s important not to become complacent and assume everyone knows this.  It is surprising how often different leaders have different ideas about the organization’s big purpose—and how much those different understandings produce confusion and organizational dysfunction.

I worked with a school whose leaders said their mission was to eradicate poverty.  As we worked on the theory of change, school leaders came to realize that, in reality, they wanted to provide transformative educational experience and family support services that would increase the likelihood that students from low income households would develop the kind of skills and lifelong love of learning that would allow them to climb out of generations of poverty.  The Big Purpose was still inspirational and, as it became more clear, focused, and actionable, leaders were better identify the strategies and activities that would achieve that purpose—and to avoid distracting activities that lay outside their mission.

  1. Get Clear about Organizational Goals. Narrow your focus enough to achieve something real that is linked to the big purpose and to minimize the likelihood that everyone is working toward different goals.  In the intensive home-based services example, the program goals had to shift from goals of basically eliminating the child’s psychiatric symptoms or the life impact of those symptoms (goals which were rarely being achieved anyway) to empowering the child and parents to manage the symptoms and minimize crises.
  1. Get Clear about Organizational Strategies and Activities for achieving those goals and that big purpose. This is a very important step. Many nonprofit organizations provide a set of services in a particular way year after year without serious reflection on the question of whether these particular services actually are likely to achieve the desired results.  lt is definitely possible to provide millions of dollars of services to thousands of people without achieving the intended goals well at all.  It is incumbent upon nonprofit leaders, most of whom are passionately working for the big purpose, to periodically stop and think about whether the programs and activities they are providing are really even logically linked to the organization’s goals and purpose.

When you have your stakeholders gathered, use questions like these to help get CLEAR about your theory of change and increase the likelihood that your organization achieves great impact.

  1. Discuss the big purpose of your organization and address the following questions:
    • What does that mean to each of us?  Work to arrive at shared understanding, to make sure various stakeholders mean the same thing when they talk about the goals.
    • What does it look like when our purpose is fulfilled? How can we and our supporters know that we are achieving that purpose?
  2. What are our organization’s key strategies for achieving its Big Purpose and goals?
  3. Does it make sense, and fit with available knowledge, to believe that these strategies will produce those results?
  4. What are the activities, services, etc. for achieving the purpose and goals?
  5. Do the activities and services fit within the defined strategies?
  6. Does it make logical sense, and does it fit with available knowledge, to believe that these activities and services will produce those results?
  7. Are there key strategies or activities we ought to incorporate which are known to produce these kinds of desired results?

When your Theory of Change is more CLEAR, you can lead your organization much more effectively, with greater momentum and use of resources.  And, when your Theory of Change is TRUE, you can better ensure that the organization is having the desired impact.  The next paper will focus on ensuring that your Theory of Change is TRUE.  

This entry was posted in Leadership, Management, nonprofit, Planning. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *