theory of change
When I work with nonprofit leaders to create a strategic plan, one of the first things we do together is create a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change is an articulation of why your nonprofit exists — what you ultimately hope to accomplish. The Theory of Change is the culmination of answers to a set of 5 key questions, the first of which is, “Who is Your Target Population?”
Your Target Population is the individuals or groups that your nonprofit is seeking to benefit or influence. So if you are a social services nonprofit, your target population is probably your clients. If you are an advocacy group, your target population is probably lawmakers. But often a nonprofit has multiple target populations. For example, a school that works directly with both children and their parents would have both groups as separate target populations.
When a nonprofit exists just to do good work, its leaders are less clear and less disciplined about exactly who they are seeking to benefit or influence. But it is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is, in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create change with your target.
But figuring out your target population is not easy.
First, let’s start with who is not your target population:
Not Your Funders
Your target population is not individuals or groups who fund your work. While funders are absolutely critical to your success, they are not core to your mission-related work. So while you would love to influence them to give you more money, their doing that will not by itself create social change. They are not your target population, rather they are a means to an end.
Not The Targets of Your Competitors or Collaborators
Your target population is also not individuals or groups that are being better benefitted or influenced by other organizations or entities. This is where your Marketplace Map comes in (another key part of a strategic planning process). As a nonprofit you will be most successful when your 1) core competencies (what you do better than anyone else) uniquely position you to address 2) a community need, apart from your 3) competitors or collaborators. So once you figure out who your competitors and collaborators are, you should avoid target populations that are being more effectively served by those other entities.
Not Those Who You Cannot Change
Your target population is also not individuals or groups who you really want to help, but are simply not well-positioned to do so. This is the case with nonprofit leaders who are so big-hearted that they continue to add new groups to serve until they realize that their services and the people they serve range much too far and wide. This approach often spreads a nonprofit too thin and ends up providing diminishing returns for the organization and their clients. While it often goes against a nonprofit leader’s ethos, sometimes you have to turn some people away in order to better serve those who you can serve really well.
So who is your target population?
Your target population then are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so you will move closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clearer about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, funders, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal.
In other words, when you are clearer about who you want to change, you will become better at actually creating that change.
If you want to learn more about a Theory of Change, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide, or if you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, download the Strategic Planning Benefit Sheet.
Photo Credit: vizzzual.com
Last month I was asked by Ted Bilich, CEO of Risk Alternatives — a Washington, DC firm helping nonprofits manage their organizational and financial risks — to participate in a podcast. This is part of their ongoing podcast series “About Risk” which talks to thought leaders about risk management and process improvement for nonprofits, small businesses, and startups.
In the podcast Ted and I talk about:
- How the nonprofit landscape has become more competitive
- Why nonprofits need a theory of change
- How and when to engage in strategic planning
- How nonprofits can determine if they are applying best practices
- The benefits of a financial model assessment
- How to address common risks involving a board of directors
- And much more
You can listen to the podcast below, or click here.
Photo Credit: Patrick Breitenbach
I was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders last month about creating a nonprofit value proposition — how to articulate the value their nonprofit creates — and it was exciting to see the lightbulb go on around the room.
Nonprofit leaders are so passionate about the work they do — it is so obvious to them why their work is critically important.
But that’s the problem.
Because it is so obvious to them, it is often incredibly difficult for a nonprofit leader to articulate to someone outside the organization (funders, volunteers, advocates, even board members sometimes) why they should become involved.
This is where a value proposition — or what I call a Theory of Change — comes in.
If you can articulate your target audience, what you do, and what you hope to achieve, you have a much greater chance of encouraging others to join your efforts.
A Theory of Change is such a fundamental building block to everything a nonprofit does. So I have created a new Slideshare presentation from the speech I gave on the 5 Benefits of a Theory of Change. In my mind, a Theory of Change:
- Builds a Vision, Mission and Strategy
- Engages Board and Staff
- Helps Prove Impact
- Allows Capacity Capital, and
- Attracts More Support
So, adding to the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations, below is the 5 Benefits of a Nonprofit Theory of Change slideshare, which describes these benefits in detail and shows you how to create a Theory of Change for your nonprofit.
Take a look below.
And if you’d like to learn more, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide or the Craft a Case for Investment Guide. Or, if you’d like me to come speak to your group about this or other topics, check out my Speaking page.
Photo Credit: Bost
I talk a lot about the many challenges of leading a nonprofit. But sometimes even success itself can be a challenge for a nonprofit. This was particularly true for one of my clients, Breakthrough Austin.
Breakthrough is a very successful nonprofit that identifies cohorts of 6th grade students who want to be the first in their families to graduate from college. The nonprofit then supports those students over the next 12 years so that they reach that goal. Over their 10+ year history, Breakthrough has achieved impressive student outcomes and the support of a deep donor base.
In fact, Breakthrough has been so successful that other schools and school districts have asked to add the Breakthrough program. But that’s not always a good thing, especially when a nonprofit doesn’t know where they can grow most sustainably and with the greatest results.
In the Spring of 2015, Breakthrough board and staff wanted to grow to reach more students, but they didn’t know how to determine when and where. They needed a strategic plan that could help them chart a growth trajectory to reach more students in a sustainable way. And baked into that strategic plan they needed strategic growth filters that helped them assess how to know if new locations were a good fit with their model and their long-term plans.
Breakthrough hired Social Velocity to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, Breakthrough created an advisory committee of board, staff and key external stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which Breakthrough operates, develop Breakthrough’s theory of change, refine their vision and mission statements, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization.
Together we created the various elements of their strategic plan:
- A Marketplace Map, to understand how their core competencies fit with a set of community needs, apart from their competitors and collaborators
- A Theory of Change, to articulate the value they hope to create
- Strategic Growth Filters, to analyze where they should grow
- Revised Vision and Mission Statements
- 3-Year Strategic Plan and Budget
- Year 1 Operational Plan, to execute on the strategic plan
- System for Monitoring the Plan, to make sure it is coming to fruition
Over the course of the 6-month planning period, Breakthrough board and staff became increasingly excited about their new strategic plan and the clarity it gives them about how and when to grow. They are already putting the pieces in place for expansion and are beginning to build the additional capacity necessary to get there.
Creating a strategic plan helped Breakthrough become crystal clear about how to grow strategically and sustainably, as Michael Griffith, Breakthrough Executive Director put it:
“Nell helped us chart a course for the future that meets the needs of our current students and allows us to expand to serve even more. She was skilled at developing a framework that allowed us to grapple with the tough questions of strategy and sustainability. We are thrilled we made this investment and look forward to the coming years with a plan firmly in place!”
If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, check out the Strategic Planning page, or if you want to read more client case studies, check out the Clients page.
Photo Credit: Breakthrough Austin
They have been spinning their wheels for months (maybe years) and can’t seem to get out of a vicious cycle that might include insufficient funding, a disengaged board of directors, struggling programs, or an inability to articulate their value to outsiders. They continue to have the same conversations month after month, wanting to do more and be more, but unable to figure out what’s holding them back.
When that is the case, a Financial Model Assessment can be really instrumental in moving the nonprofit forward.
Last week, I led the culminating meeting of a Financial Model Assessment for one of my clients. In this meeting I bring board and staff together to discuss my findings after a 3-4 month assessment of how every aspect of their nonprofit (strategy, vision and mission, board and staff structure, marketing, etc.) contributes to (or detracts from) their ability to bring sustainable money in the door.
This meeting is always my favorite part of the process because it starts to move a nonprofit forward in several ways:
Taboo Topics Are Uncovered and Discussed
Let me be clear, this is a challenging meeting. Through the course of the Assessment, I often uncover one or two things that are happening at a nonprofit that everyone knows about (and may even be discussing privately) but no one is willing or able to address as an organization. Perhaps the nonprofit is running a program that drags the organization down, or the board is not pulling their weight, or the staff is not structured effectively. In this meeting, nothing is sacred. Anything that holds the nonprofit back is fair game. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone finally put everything out in the open for the organization as a whole to discuss. Because if you don’t articulate and analyze the problems, you have no hope of overcoming them.
Board and Staff Are Energized
Once those problems are out in the open, there is often a palpable energy that begins sparking around the room as individual board and staff members begin to realize that there is a better way. It may not be easy, and it may push them and the organization in new, challenging ways, but it is exciting and hopeful and energizing. Every single time I have led one of these Assessment meetings a noticeable energy beings to build. It’s the acknowledgement among board and staff that they don’t have to be stuck anymore.
A Clear Path Emerges
And the reason they don’t have to be stuck anymore is because the Assessment lays out a path forward that frees the nonprofit from the spinning wheels. Suddenly board and staff have a set of steps and a strategy that they can discuss, analyze, and execute. They may not agree with or integrate every recommendation I make, but they at least have a future path around which they can mobilize.
This meeting, and the Financial Model Assessment that instigates it, can often be the first step in a new direction. It can be the inflection point at which board and staff finally recognize together, as a critical mass, that the status quo just won’t work anymore, and they must come together to chart a smarter, more strategic future course. It is the place where everyone acknowledges that change — true change — is necessary and possible.
Photo Credit: Till Krech
I’ve been leading several strategic planning processes lately, and as we wrapped up the last planning meeting for one of my clients (who had been encouraged to create a strategic plan by a funder) my client announced:
“I have to confess that when we started this process 6 months ago I inwardly rolled my eyes because I thought it would be a pointless process, full of silly buzzwords and with little value. I have completely changed my mind. I can already see how this new plan is making us smarter, more effective and more sustainable.”
Yep, I completely get it.
Strategic planning, when poorly done, is just a joke. But, when strategic planning is done well, it can completely transform an organization.
And there are three key places where a bad strategic plan falls short:
- Your Strategy Isn’t Big Enough
To create an effective strategic plan you have to start with the big picture. You must analyze and articulate who your target audience(s) are and your theory of change. Then you must look externally to understand the needs, the competitive landscape, the funding, the changing factors in the marketplace in which you operate. Nonprofit leaders sometimes mistakenly think they are creating an effective strategic plan when they sit in a room, look around at their fellow board and staff members, and ask each other what they think they should do. It is also a mistake to think that in such a rapidly changing world you can simply develop a status quo strategy. In order to stay relevant and sustainable you have to understand how you interact with the forces outside your walls and outside your control. And here’s a little secret: the more you think about the bigger world out there, the more excited your board and funders will be by the plan. Your nonprofit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither should your plan for the future.
- Your Strategy Isn’t Small Enough
But the other danger is to get too big and neglect the small part — the execution and monitoring of the plan. It’s great to have a bold vision and ambitious goals for the future that flow from an exciting theory of change. But that’s not enough. How will you implement it? How will you break down tasks, and responsibilities? What’s the timeline? And what is your process for determining, on a regular basis, whether the plan is actually coming to fruition? A good strategic plan, one that will actually transform your organization, requires operational detail and a process for monitoring it over time.
- Your Strategy Ignores Money
There is no effective strategic plan that neglects to answer how you will finance it. That’s why a good strategic plan devotes one of its goals to money. How much will it cost to deliver on all of the goals of your plan? How will revenue (and capital if you need it) flow to meet (or exceed) those expenses? A good strategic plan forces nonprofit leadership to become financially savvy (when they may not have been before) and begin to use money as an integral management tool.
How does your nonprofit’s strategic plan stack up? Is it big enough, small enough, and well financed? If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page or download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
Photo Credit: ESO/H. Dahle
This year on the blog I have been highlighting the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit released by the Leap Ambassador community (of which I am a member) in March. Today I continue the ongoing blog series describing each of the 7 Pillars of the Performance Imperative with Pillar 3: Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies.
You can also read about Pillar 1: Courageous, Adaptive Leadership, and Pillar 2: Disciplined, People-Focused Nonprofit Management.
Pillar 3 describes being crystal clear about what your nonprofit exists to do, how you fit into the external environment, and how you develop and execute smart programs that result in your desired social change. This Pillar is essentially about creating and executing a Theory of Change.
The most important part, in my mind, of Pillar 3 is encouraging nonprofits to define the target population(s) they aim to serve. I have seen too many nonprofit organizations so focused on doing good that they don’t define who they are best positioned to serve and how that relates to who else may be serving them. Nonprofits must get clear about their place amid other services and interventions and, very specifically, who they are hoping to benefit or influence.
As always, you can read a larger description of Pillar 3 in the Performance Imperative (and I strongly encourage you to do so), but, in summary, a nonprofit that exhibits Well-Designed and Implemented Programs and Strategies:
- Is clear on the target population they serve.
- Bases the design of their programs on evidence informed assumptions about how the organization’s activities can lead to the desired change (a“theory of change”).
- Designs programs with careful attention to the larger ecosystem in which they operate.
- Implements their programs in a consistently high-quality manner and views collecting and using data as part of implementing high-quality programs.
- Guards against the temptation to veer off course in search of numbers that look good in marketing or funder materials.
Because I think case studies are so critical to understanding what high performance really looks like in a nonprofit, I asked Sam Cobbs, CEO of First Place for Youth, to explain how he led his organization to become a national model for helping foster kids to thrive.
Here is his story:
First Place went through an intensive theory of change process in 2008 where we explored what impact we wanted to make with youth and what type of activities and interactions it would take to achieve that impact. In addition, because the activities and interactions needed to be intensive (and therefore costly) we made the decision to focus our services on the most vulnerable youth. This was measured by how at risk a youth was using a risk assessment scale that took into account, among other factors:
- number of foster care placements
- years or days of homelessness
- job history
- education level, and
- the number and quality of support systems, including positive adult role models.
Based on this criteria, youth who had a higher risk factor score were given priority over youth with lower scores.
After establishing our target population, we began to collect data on what activities and interactions youth were having with the organization and started to analyze these trends. We were looking to understand what our population had in common so that we could understand who we were effective with and who we needed to create better interventions for.
Through this work we determined that we had 8 participant types at baseline and figured out which types we worked better with and what interventions were best used with these sub-populations. We then trained staff to deliver the interventions that were shown to work better with certain sub-populations.
We also began to understand that our sweet spot was kids who had multiple foster care placements, had experienced homelessness at some point, and had a high school diploma or GED. We also learned that we needed to get better with youth who had low risk factor scores because they had an extensive support network, had never experienced homelessness, and were somewhat stable while in foster care. This may go against what we naturally think — that a person with extensive support would do better, but our data showed the opposite. We were also not very good at working with single parents who did not have a high school degree. In the coming year we are going to redo this process using algorithms to see if we get the same results and trends.
If we see that we are not doing well in an area, we research the best practices to deal with that area and direct resources and time to delivering that intervention. For example, because of the data we realized that a portion of our youth had very high trauma scores. Therefore we said we needed to become better at working with youth who have had complex trauma at high rates. We then created an initiative to insure that everyone in the organization understood trauma and its impact on our youth and the best ways to address it. We will see at the end of this year if this investment in trauma informed training has paid off by increasing our outcomes and impact with the youth that we serve.
We are consistently looking at the data to understand where we are doing well and where we need to improve. Its the data, the data, the data.
Photo Credit: First Place for Youth
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Kelly Born, program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Kelly also writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog. Here is her guest post…
In March of 2014, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation launched a new initiative focused on US democracy reform, The Madison Initiative. The overarching goal is to “help create the conditions in which Congress and its members can deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that work for more Americans.”
Our mandate is for a 3-year, exploratory initiative to assess whether and how the Foundation might be able to make a difference here. During this period, we are focused on three central questions:
- Are there solutions and approaches that are worth pursuing?
- Is there ample grantee capacity to pursue these ideas (or can we help build it)?
- Are there funding partners we can work with to make it happen?
In exploring this problem of congressional dysfunction we realized early on that, unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any silver-bullets that will solve this problem – it’s not as if campaign finance reform, nonpartisan redistricting, or increased voter turnout, taken on their own, would resolve our current democratic ails (even setting aside for the moment how hard it would be to actually achieve these changes!).
Regrettably, there is no clear consensus on what to do to improve the system, much less on how to do it. This may be, in part, why Inside Philanthropy awarded The Madison Initiative with 2014’s Big Foundation Bet Most Likely to Fail. Given this, our view has been that current congressional dysfunction is occurring in a system of systems (and sub-systems) that are interacting in complicated ways.
Early on we decided to develop a systems map rather than a theory of change to guide our work (working in close partnership with the Center for Evaluation Innovation and Kumu, collaborations we’ve written a bit about here). Theories of change typically outline desired (social or environmental) outcomes and then map backwards, linearly, to the activities and inputs necessary to achieve those outcomes. Systems maps are perhaps better suited for more complex, uncertain environments like democracy reform, where cause-and-effect relationships can be entangled and mutually reinforcing, rather than unidirectional.
Version 1.0 of our map includes more than 35 variables we believe are contributing to the problem, distributed across three key domains: Congress, Campaigns and Elections, and Citizens. In light of this complexity, rather than making an initial set of big bets on a few key variables, we have instead spread a series of smaller bets within these systems to see where grantees might gain traction, and what this reveals about the system’s more confounding parts.
The benefits of this approach are many – in fact, I cannot imagine effectively tackling this particular problem any other way. But employing this spread betting approach also involves a few challenges for us at Hewlett, and for our partners and grantees. The trade-offs are worth considering:
- We are acknowledging and respecting complexity, but this can sow seeds of confusion for our partners. Our approach has the essential benefit of taking into account the systemic complexity and interdependency of what we are trying to help change. We are avoiding over-simplifying and thereby misconstruing our reality (a good thing). But we are exploring more than 35 variables (ranging from deteriorating bipartisan relationships to the proliferation of partisan news media), with more than 60 active grantees. This approach can be hard to manage, and harder still to convey to others – especially anyone accustomed to a more linear and readily understandable theory of change.
- Our course correcting helps us learn, but has a real impact on partners. As we diversify our investments to learn more about what works, we will continue to learn more about which efforts are having the most impact on congressional dysfunction, and which are less germane to the problem. As we do, we will necessarily converge (and double down) on a few core interventions, while discontinuing others. This will mean disappointing organizations that we respect and had supported at the outset – an inevitable byproduct of this approach, but unpleasant for all involved.
- Our evidence-based approach risks coming off as overly academic. We are determined to avoid investing in solutions where there is not solid evidence to support their viability vis-à-vis our goals. This helps us avoid squandering funds on interventions that won’t, ultimately, work. But this approach also runs the risk of coming across as standoffish, academic, and idiosyncratic in the eyes of a practitioner-driven field that in some instances may be pursuing work that is harder to (or has yet to be) substantiated by solid research.
We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. But we deeply believe that the social sector shouldn’t shy away from complex problems. We also believe that the benefits of this approach far outweigh the costs. It enables broad-based learning, and truly forces us to constantly re-think the grants we are making. Building in these tough choices, rather than forging ahead with a pre-defined strategy, requires that we not just learn, but that we act on what we discover. And fast.
In short, while beset by a few real challenges, we’re convinced that an emergent path is the best path forward. Surely we will place some wrong bets along the way. But, as a favorite colleague of mine often says, “it’s not like we’re selling cigarettes to children.” All of our grantees are doing great work – ultimately it will (not so simply) be a question of which of these lines of work is most likely to improve Congress.
In 2017, we will go back to our Board of Directors to discuss whether and how The Madison Initiative’s work will continue. In the meantime, we would love to hear how other funders have approached emergent problems like this – and how nonprofits might advise that we manage these inherent challenges as we progress?