What is a “Theory of Change”?

A theory of change describes a process of planned social change, from the assumptions that guide its design to the long-term goals it seeks to achieve. Grantmakers who have created theories of change explain that having a theory helps them and their grantees draw logical connections between activities and outcomes. It helps them to articulate exactly what propositions and assumptions their work is testing — and therefore what they should be assessing in their evaluation plan. Grant makers who use the term may be describing anything from a detailed map to a general storyline. What they agree on is that a theory of change is valuable if it helps them and their grantees understand the relationship between the problems they’re addressing and the strategies they’re using to get the work done. A theory of change is mainly helpful for articulating and thoroughly probing the assumptions behind an intervention or program model, thereby laying a foundation for more practical implementation planning

The term “theory of change” came into use in the early 1990s, largely in the context of foundation-supported “comprehensive community initiatives,” or CCIs. Dedicated to improving the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods, usually with the involvement of neighborhood residents, CCIs tended to be too broad in their strategies and goals, too susceptible to unexpected inputs and events, and too likely to change course in midstream to be assessed with more traditional evaluation methods. Theory of change gave CCIs an inclusive method for planning their work, involving and getting buy-in from many constituencies, and deciding on milestones along the way toward neighborhood transformation.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Mapping Change.