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What is a Theory of change?

In one of our recent episodes we covered designing an extension program. While putting that together, we realised that there were other important aspects to cover that complement the design of an extension program. One of these is developing a Theory of change. But that brings us to the questions—what is a Theory of change and how would we use one? 

Theory of change has often been used in development contexts since the 1990s. A Theory of change is an explanation or a description of the pathway to change. It outlines what the preconditions are to achieve your long term outcome and makes the steps to achieving change explicit. This is important because we can see the cause and effects and whether there are gaps. We can identify assumptions and check to make sure these make sense. Activities can be clearly linked to outcomes, and ultimately a Theory of change provides the opportunity for review and reflection, both from inside and outside a team, because the thinking is explicit.

Theories of change link outcomes and activities to explain how and why the desired change is expected to come about (Clark & Anderson, 2004). In fact they are sometimes called a causal model, as they help explain why something will cause something else. A Theory of change explains the change!

So how would we create a Theory of change? There are three steps: draft the causal pathways, test the logic and scope, and finally, monitor, review and summarise. The first step, draft out the pathways or explanations, starts with defining our outcomes; the results for our program. This is where the Theory of change links into Bennett’s Hierarchy. Is the outcome you’re seeking knowledge, attitude, skills or aspirational change? Is it practice change, and if so, what kind of practice change? Or maybe it’s at the top of Bennett’s hierarchy and it’s a social, economic, environmental or cultural change? (We’ve done an episode on this too, if you need a refresher!) Get this clear first! Then workshop and start asking what needs to be in place for that to happen to identify the preconditions for the outcome. This uses the project team and appropriate stakeholders to help develop the Theory of change.

The second step is to test the logic and scope. This means we take the Theory of change and we reflect and review it with the project team and others associated with the program, as a means of checking that it truly reflects what the program is trying to do and that there are no gaps. 

The third and final step is to monitor, review and summarise. This is when we set up the evaluation framework associated with the Theory of change—something that is relatively easy to do once we have completed the Theory of change. 

We wondered if it might be helpful at this point to look at a simple Theory of change as an example. This one comes from an organisation in New Zealand called Inspiring Communities. They offer services that help accelerate change. Their summary sentence for their Theory of change says: “community-led development strengthens social connections so communities thrive”. The precondition is strengthening connections and the outcome is thriving communities. They have a diagram that shows a detailed outline of their Theory of change which is worth looking at. As usual we have put the link to this at the bottom of this blog post. 


Another example we thought was good is from Katoa, a Māori Indigenous research organisation. This Theory of change relates to ‘Dress for success’, a not-for-profit who provides work outfits to women to help them get ready to enter paid employment. Their Theory of change could sound something like this: if we provide work clothes for those unable to afford them, then these work clothes will help people create a good impression at job interviews. If people create a good impression at job interviews then they will be more successful in their search for paid employment. If people are more successful in their search for paid employment then you can assume they are more likely to get a job, which then leads to better economic outcomes for individuals and families and so on.

So a Theory of change is a tool to help us explain how and why a change program works. It highlights why it might make a difference, and helps us design appropriate activities and evaluation.

At this point we would like to acknowledge a couple of people who helped us with this topic. Firstly, Col Freeman who ran an excellent APEN Roadshow back in 2016 and helped us understand just what a Theory of change was all about. Secondly, Jane Wightman, who after listening to our episode on designing an extension program, emailed and suggested we should follow up with a Theory of change episode. And she even sent us a paper to help… thank you to you both!

Well, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences using a Theory of change, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change post. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you would like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they can join the conversation!



Anderson, A. A. (2006). The community builder’s approach to Theory of Change.


Clark, H., & Anderson, A. A. (2004). Theories of change and logic models: Telling them apart. In American Evaluation Association Conference. Atlanta: GA. 


Community-led development Theory of change mentioned in the episode:


Katoa Theory of change example: 


Theory of change primer:

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David Bicknell
David Bicknell
2 years ago

I really like the explanation of a theory as assumptions about cause and effect that can be tested. Which is why the basic framework of Bennett’s hierarchy is so appealing. The reference you used in that previous presentation is just as valid now as when it was written (Rockwell and Bennett (2004), Targeting Outcomes of Programs: A Hierarchy for Targeting Outcomes and Evaluating Their Achievement ). I suggest that the program development steps are more valid for a theory of change (planning), and the program performance steps more valid for operations. The link between the same steps in the… Read more »

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bicknell

Thanks David – great breakdown of the planning, delivery and evaluation. Bennett’s hierarchy really has stood the test of time! So useful, and so important to take the time to think this through and write it down before we jump into activities!

Michelle Rush
2 years ago

Two steps I have found important to include when generating a Theory of Change for programme design with a group, is identifying connections between activities (and where relevant outputs / outcomes) and then using this to help identify the stakeholders. Has really helped in translating the ToC into an action plan as it helps make clear the critical path and helps inform the ‘who and how’ which as David B observes below, is pretty important if we want to actually get to our outputs and outcomes..!

1 year ago

Thank you very much for the article on theory of change. Could you please elaborate on the theory guiding project management.

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