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What’s Your Nonprofit’s Theory of Change?

By Nell Edgington



Theory of Change GuideOver the past few years I’ve developed a Social Velocity library of books, step-by-step guides, and webinars. My hope is that these tools can make the concepts I use with my consulting clients accessible to smaller and start up nonprofits who aren’t ready for or interested in a customized approach.

The tools follow the methods I develop in my consulting practice (like creating a financing plan, growing the board of directors, designing a theory of change) so when my consulting approach changes over time, the tools must change as well.

Which brings me to the Design a Theory of Change Guide. I created this guide a couple of years ago, but I recently changed the Theory of Change framework I use with my clients. I used to follow a more traditional logic model approach, but over time I’ve come to realize that there are really five specific and complex questions that make up a Theory of Change.

And those are:

  1. What is the target population or populations you are seeking to benefit or influence?
  2. What relevant trends in or changes to the external environment are occurring?
  3. How and where are your core competencies employed?
  4. What changed conditions do you believe will result from your activities?
  5. What evidence do you have that this theory will actually result in change?

The completely revised Design a Theory of Change Guide walks you step-by-step through answering these questions and creating your nonprofit’s own Theory of Change.

A Theory of Change is a fundamental building block to everything that your nonprofit does. Because without a Theory of Change, you won’t know what you are trying to accomplish, how you will get there, or whether you are moving towards it, and you certainly won’t attract the funding necessary to get there.

A Theory of Change can strengthen your nonprofit in many ways:

  • Guides your strategic planning process. If you understand your nonprofit’s overall Theory of Change and what you exist to do, it is much easier to chart a future course.

  • Helps revise the vision and mission of your organization, making them stronger and more compelling.

  • Gives a framework to prove whether you are actually achieving results and creating real social change.

  • Provides a filter for new opportunities as they arise. Do new opportunities fit within your Theory of Change?

  • Engages board members and other volunteers, friends and supporters in your work. If people understand the bigger picture, they will be more inclined to give more time, energy, and other resources to the work.

  • Allows staff to understand how their individual roles and responsibilities fit into the larger vision of the organization. This can increase staff morale, productivity, communication and overall commitment to the organization.

  • Provides the basic argument for a case for investment or other fundraising messaging. With a Theory of Change, you can articulate what you are working to achieve, in a compelling way.

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 in the first place. And you certainly can’t convince 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 to truly create long-term social change you must start with a Theory of Change, which is why I encourage every nonprofit engaged in social change to create one.

You can learn more about the Design a Theory of Change Guide and download a copy of it. If you downloaded the previous Theory of Change Guide and would like the newly revised version free of charge, let me know, and we’ll send it to you.

As always, you can see all of the Social Velocity books, guides and webinars available for download on the Social Velocity Tools page.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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3 Comments to What’s Your Nonprofit’s Theory of Change?

Mark Contorno
May 27, 2015

I like point #5 it is pretty important to test your theory. Kind of like making a hypothesis and then bouncing the ideas around with co-workers and mentors to get a better idea of what would happen if you walked down that path.

I wish I did this more often with my startup.

[…] To truly create long-term social change you must start with a Theory of Change  […]

[…] creating change, or are we just perpetuating the status quo?” If the answer is the latter, take a big step back and figure out what you can do bigger to create […]

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