This is a guest post from one of Watson Coon Ryan’s friends, Paul Collier. Paul is an independent consultant who supports small and mid-size nonprofits with data management and evaluation. He has worked with over 35 nonprofits in Colorado and beyond, ranging in focus from the arts to economic opportunity and family empowerment. You can learn more about his work at www.paulbcollier.com.
Is your nonprofit organization grappling with evaluations and indicators that you feel don’t adequately tell your impact story?
The reality is that, out of the 40+ nonprofit organizations I’ve worked with, almost every one of them feels this way. In my experience, one of the most useful tools for telling your impact story is a Theory of Change.
The good news is that if with some time and a little direction you can outline a Theory of Change (ToC hereafter) for your organization on your own. In this blog, I’ll show you how.
What are we talking about?
A ToC is both a process and a product that helps you describe how your organization’s services make a lasting impact. At its core, it is a graphical outline of:
• Who your organization serves (also known as your target population)
• The results your organization achieves (short-term and long-term outcomes)
• What your organization does (your activities)
• The assets your organization uses to perform these activities (your inputs)
• The beliefs and assumptions your organization holds about how change happens (assumptions)
Looking at this you might be thinking, “my organization was asked to create something called a logic model, and this looks awfully similar.” You are right – ToC’s and Logic Models are both ways of expressing how your organization seeks to make change. In my experience working with small and medium sized nonprofits, there are two key differences. First, a ToC is typically defined at the organization level, while logic models are often defined program-by-program. Second, a ToC explores your team’s assumptions around how change happens, which makes it a better framework to organize learning priorities.
Do I need to work on my ToC?
In my work, I’ve found that every organization has an implicit ToC, and most staff members, executives, and board members can recite at least one story to illustrate how their organization makes an impact. Many organizations have an explicit ToC, written down on paper and sometimes used in grant applications. But few organizations go one step further, by having an organized approach to testing their ToC and adapting it over time.
Chances are, your organization may at some point need to add philanthropic grants or government contracts to your funding mix. Many grant makers and governments are now expecting their grantees to share a coherent ToC. Having this already drafted and backed up by some evidence of success gives you power in interactions with prospective funders. It also helps you show that you have a well-thought-out approach, and illustrates what performance indicators are most meaningful to build into your grant or contract.
Not only is a ToC an effective fundraising tool – it also helps your team. First, a collaborative ToC drafting process allows your staff to get on the same page around how impact happens for your beneficiaries. Talking about beliefs and assumptions gives your team an opportunity to name the limitations to your approach in an objective, productive way. And, perhaps most importantly, a ToC helps you prioritize data collection and evaluation activities.
In general, the starting place for evaluation is to understand your program’s quality and fit for your beneficiaries, then explore short-term outcomes, test key underlying assumptions, and examine longer-term outcomes with increasing rigor. Notice that the last step here, looking for evidence of longer-term outcomes, is only appropriate if you have positive evidence that you’re serving the right population and seeing some positive short-term results.
So how do I make a ToC?
Creating a ToC is fun, and something many organizations can do themselves, with a bit of time and facilitation prowess. Your process to making your ToC will likely follow this path: Preparation, facilitation, communication, and testing & iteration.
First – Preparation. Organizations often reference research to support the problem they’re trying to solve, the effectiveness of their solution, or both. Your organization may already leverage some research – if so, try to compile this in a spreadsheet, and add additional sources to what you already have. Google Scholar is my go-to source for research in general, and the Results First Clearinghouse Database and Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development are great sites for identifying programs that have been proven effective elsewhere.
Second – Facilitation. Drafting a ToC should be a collaborative process. I typically engage 3 – 8 individuals from an organization in a series of 90-minute workshops, with each workshop relating to one or two elements of the ToC. I’ve often found it helpful to have individuals brainstorm each component individually, writing their thoughts on post-it notes or note cards so they can be rearranged and grouped into themes later. Below is an example of how I typically structure these discussions:
• Workshop 1: Define who the organization serves, and begin brainstorming its ultimate, long-term outcomes.
• Workshop 2: Refine long-term outcomes, and define short-term/intermediate outcomes that lead to the desired longer-term changes.
• Workshop 3: Define the activities that the organization does currently or aspires to do, and link these with the desired longer-term changes.
• Workshop 4: Discuss the assets the organization uses to make its activities happen, and the beliefs and assumptions that underlay the ToC.
The third step is Communication – it’s important that organization leaders practice talking about the ToC with stakeholders close to their organization. Not only does this provide helpful feedback – it also helps them build their reputation as intentional leaders. Consider sharing your draft with a handful of board members, foundation program officers, partnering organizations or program participants. As you incorporate their feedback, also consider whether there were areas that became challenging to communicate, and simplify those. Ultimately, you will want to integrate your ToC into grant applications, partner presentations, and other communications collateral, so practicing the messaging is important.
The final step is testing and iteration. A ToC is never “done”, and should be updated once or twice each year as your team learns. I often incorporate a prioritization exercise in the last session exploring beliefs and assumptions. First, identify those assumptions your team is least sure of. You can learn more about these through research, interviews with participants, adding questions to surveys, focus groups, team discussions, or discussions with your organization’s mentors. Then incorporate what you’ve learned into the next version of your ToC.
Navigating the roadblocks
A good ToC is one that is specific and rigorously thought-out. I’ve found that each aspect presents different challenges to be aware of. Here’s a short list of the most common roadbloacks encountered during the determination of each of the following ToC elements:
Who does your organization serve:
– Not including both demographic characteristics and indicators of risk.
– Defining this so broadly that there is no implied priority of who is a better fit for your services.
The results your organization helps people achieve:
– Not differentiating between outputs (services received) and outcomes (the resulting changes in knowledge, attitude, or behavior)
– Not listing outcomes in terms staff and beneficiaries understand.
– Not listing outcomes because you can’t imagine how to measure them (not all outcomes need to be measured)
– Not identifying shorter-term and longer-term changes
What your organization does:
– Not defining a minimum required quantity of an activity per beneficiary
– Not measuring both quantity and quality of activities.
– Having activities that are not aligned to any outcome (or outcomes that do not relate to any activities).
– Not differentiating between activities for all beneficiaries and activities that are offered conditionally
The assets your organization uses
– Not creating a complete list; consider this component as defining what another organization might need to replicate what you do.
The beliefs and assumptions your organization holds
– Not identifying beliefs and assumptions (every organization has them).
– Not planning to do anything to test these assumptions.
Of all of these, time is perhaps the biggest roadblock to a ToC process. Generally, doing this over the course of a few days is too short a timeline – it doesn’t give you or your team enough time to reflect. On the other hand, many organizations stretch this into a 6-month process, and find themselves burnt out by the time they create a first draft.
I’d suggest drafting your ToC over a period of 2 – 6 weeks, and allocating an additional 1 – 4 weeks to collect feedback from outsiders who are friendly to your organization. To keep this timeline moving, plan all of your sessions in advance. In addition, beware of over-wordsmithing. Often, language that isn’t perfect across the board is good enough to help your team ensure the ToC is plausible and aligned.
Making it Happen
Now that you know why a ToC is important, how to work through the process, and roadblocks to avoid along the way, you might be wondering how to get started.
I’d suggest assigning one person to be your ToC facilitator – this is the role I often play. As the facilitator, trying to remain curious and neutral is key. Work with your team to identify when in the year would be a good time for this discussion, ideally at a time where any changes that come out of the process can be implemented (i.e., just before the start of a new program year).
Keep in mind a ToC is just a theory, so by definition it isn’t right until proven out. It exists to help your organization test and improve in a structured way, and the sooner you have one the sooner you can begin on this important work.
If I can be of any assistance in this process or you have any questions on the above, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to help.