Last week I spoke at the Women’s Collective Giving Network (WCGN) national conference about the power of a theory of change. The WCGN is an affiliation of women’s philanthropic groups across the country. The members pool their money and give grants to nonprofit organizations. It is critically important that they, along with every nonprofit organization, understand and embrace the power of a theory of change.
With increasing competition for social change dollars it is absolutely crucial that nonprofit organizations develop their own theory of change. A theory of change is basically an argument for why a nonprofit organization exists. It describes how an organization uses community resources (money, volunteers, clients) to perform a set of activities which result in changes to the clients’ lives (outcomes) and changes to broader communities, institutions, or systems (impact).
Essentially a theory of change describes how a nonprofit creates social change.
So a very basic theory of change for a literacy program would look like this:
It used to be enough for a nonprofit to talk about what they produced (or outputs), such as meals served in a soup kitchen, hours spent reading to a child, beds provided in a homeless shelter, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world where there are fewer and fewer dollars and more and more nonprofits fighting for those dollars, philanthropists, government funders and others are increasingly asking the question “To What End?” So what if you created outputs, did anything really change because of your work? Did the lives of those in your program change and did our community change?
That’s where a theory of change comes in. If you can articulate what change you hope your organization is creating, then with that fundamental building block in place you can:
- Chart a strategic direction
- Prove your results
- Secure more support for your organization
And ultimately achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: sustainable community change.
A theory of change is the fundamental building block that makes all of this happen, like this:
A theory of change is so fundamental because you cannot chart a strategic direction if you don’t know what you are trying to change. And you can’t prove that you’ve changed something unless you have articulated what it is that you want to change. And you certainly can’t get funders, volunteers, and key decision makers to support you if you can’t tell them what you are trying to change and whether you are actually doing it. So the only way to truly create long-term social change is to start with a theory of change. Which is why I encourage every nonprofit organization to go through the exercise.
If you need help crafting your own theory of change, check out our Creating a Theory of Change step-by-step guide, or if you need customized help to chart a strategic direction, check out our Strategic Planning consulting services.
Photo Credit: Kristymp