Theory of Change as the Basis for Strategic Planning: A grantee and funder tell their story of creating a theory of change

To find out more about the process, GrantCraft talked with the executive director of a grantee organization that provides employment services to ex-offenders and with the facilitator who led her and her team through the creation of a theory of change:

How did the grantee produce the theory of change?

Over three days of conversation, a team (made up of the organization’s executive director, four program directors, and two representatives from the consulting firm that would later help with the business planning) clarified the grantee’s target population and the objectives it sought for its clients, then worked backward through a series of questions about the assumptions underlying their work. Their goal was to construct two theories of change: a program theory of change and an organizational theory of change.

The program theory of change articulated why the organization delivers services in the way it does to its particular population of clients — in other words, what the organization hopes its clients will achieve, and how and why its services foster those outcomes. The organizational theory of change articulated “what the organization must do, and do differently, in order to optimize its ability to deliver its program theory of change,” as the grantmaker who facilitated the conversation put it.

In the process, the grantee participants found that they had to specify four things as clearly as possible:

  • What services they delivered to help their clients reach the desired outcomes
  • The implications for the organization in terms of internal structures and operations, additional staffing, and support

Each item was crucial to the business plan they would subsequently develop to guide the organization’s growth.

What was accomplished by constructing a theory of change?

“I have to admit that I was surprised by how helpful it was,” the executive director recounts. Before the theory of change work, she says, she would have had easy answers to many of the questions they explored: “I would have said, ‘Yeah, of course I can describe our client population!” Yet it took the group several hours to agree on a firm definition. “It was around the edges that there wasn’t agreement,” the grant maker reflected, “but managing the edges of your target population is the most challenging thing in any human service agency.”

In the end, the grantee — and the foundation — attained the following:

  • A clear picture of organizational purpose. As the grantee remarked, “I liked that it made big definitions become really concrete.” Gaining consensus among themselves was valuable but also a little unraveling at times for the members of the nonprofit team. One of the most important “ah-ha” moments came after someone said that the organization assumed that helping ex-offenders get and keep jobs would reduce recidivism. At that point, they realized that their program doesn’t actually do anything specifically to address recidivism. “So,” the facilitator asked, “do you want to hold yourselves accountable for reducing recidivism rates?” In the long run, the organization decided to focus on holding themselves accountable for their clients’ continuing employment, but also to track recidivism to see if their assumption – that getting and keeping a job reduces recidivism – holds up.
  • A stronger sense of organizational needs. A strong theory of change helps only if the organization has the appropriate resources to carry it out. In this case, the grantee talked through the staffing requirements — programmatic, supervisory, and administrative — associated with refining and expanding their program model. As the program officer said, the group recognized as they planned that “everything has an organizational consequence.”
  • A greater capacity for analysis. For the foundation, one attraction of the theory of change approach is its ability to encourage a culture of learning and analysis within grantee organizations: “We think that the traditional approach of work- ing with grantees, in which an external evaluator is hired to design evaluation methods, create the data collection system, analyze the data, and develop a report, is not a way that furthers the work of non-profit organizations. It doesn’t build capacity or improve performance management.”
  • A blueprint for evaluation. The grantee organization is currently participating in an impact evaluation of a number of workforce development programs. Outcomes, indicators, and measures identified as part of its theory of change have been incorporated into that study. The organization expects that the evaluation will help them to address some fundamental questions about program efficacy and the performance measures they should be tracking to manage and improve their operations.

Comments