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Theory of Change - Understanding How Any System Works

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

Much of the content of this topic came from this book: Nonprofit Programs - Book Cover

Sections of This Topic Include

Basic Overview of Theory of Change
How to Develop a Theory of Change
Example of a Theory of Change (for Community Collaboration)
Examples of Theory of Change
Special Topics About Theory of Change
Trainings and Resources About Theory of Change

Also consider
Guidelines and Framework for Developing Logic Models
Related Library Topics

Basic Overview of Theory of Change

A system, such as a program, product or program has a recurring set of activities, including:

  1. Inputs to the system, such as curriculum materials, funding and expertise
  2. Processes that occur to the inputs, such as trainings, facilitations and coaching
  3. Outputs from the processes, such as the number of students trained
  4. Changes in external resources, such as new knowledge, skills and abilities among the students

Logic models are often used to depict this flow of activities. However, what is missing from the logic models are depiction and explanation of how those activities affect -- or are supposed to affect -- each other. The theory of change is extremely useful in that regard.

A logic model can clearly depict the order of the phases in a systematic program, such as the training program above. However, it does not explain how those phases are closely integrated to produce the desired outcomes from the program. For example, the logic model does not explain the assumptions that program designers make when they conclude that certain processes will produce certain outputs and outcomes.

The theory of change of the program explains those assumptions. It explains the assumed causes and effects that program designers can study in order to understand why a program works or does not work. The theory of change can also explain what others must do to duplicate or improve similar programs.

Theory of change applies to almost any kind of designed system, including products, services and programs. Thus, the concept can be extremely useful to any kind of organization or internal unit in the organization.

Theory of Change vs Logical Framework – what’s the difference?
Differences Between the Theory of Change and the Logic Model

How to Develop a Theory of Change

Theory of Change - When to Use
Theory of Change (a how-to)
Theory of Change (another how-to)
How to Build a Theory of Change

Example of a Theory of Change (for a Community Collaboration)

The following example is based on this logic model for a community collaboration of several nonprofit organizations working together to accomplish a common overall change in the community. The reader is encouraged to print out that one-page model as he or she reads the following theory of change. During the example collaboration, the lead organization supports the organizational development of each partnering organization with assessments, trainings, coaching and peer learning.

Information in a theory of change is sometimes described in a reverse order of the parts of the logic model because the primary focus is on – and starts with – the expected outcomes.

7. Community-level, long-term outcomes:

  • certain social issues will be resolved for a certain group of clients in certain geographic area(s)

Program Activities:

These desired outcomes are to reduce the occurrence of gang activity, youth violence, and child abuse and neglect among 12-21 year-olds in a certain area by the end of the 3-year Program. The amount of change and the indicators to those amounts for each social service might not yet be determined. Hopefully the suggested degree of alignment between the participating organization’s program outcomes can come from the result of the upcoming community assessment and asset mapping. The occurrence and quality of these outcomes will be evaluated at the end of the Program.


  • The outcomes (impacts on clients) of the programs of each of the participating organizations in the Program are aligned with contributing to the desired community-level, long-term outcomes.

6. Long-term outcomes in each of the participating organizations: organizational effectiveness and positive impacts in the community

Program Activities:

Each organization will undergo capacity building activities to implement best practices in each of the major functions, for example, Boards, strategic planning, programs, marketing, staffing, finances and fundraising.


The Program’s capacity building activities will result in each organization’s successful implementation of best practices that, in turn, will achieve effective organizational and program effectiveness for each organization and, in turn, will result in positive impacts in the community.

5. Intermediate outcomes in each organization: new skills and abilities for the personnel in the organizations

Program Activities:

Each organization’s personnel will learn about the best practices needed in each common function in an organization in order to achieve a highly effective organization, and those personnel will apply those new skills to develop those new abilities.


The Program’s methods and short-term outcomes will produce sufficient skills for those personnel to implement best practices and capacity building.

4. Short-term outcomes in each organization: new knowledge for personnel in the organizations


Personnel in each organization will gain new knowledge about the necessary best practices in the most important functions in nonprofits in order to develop high-performing nonprofits.


The Program’s methods will produce sufficient knowledge about best practices and capacity building, along with indicators toward that knowledge.

3. Tangible outputs for each organization

Program Activities:

Tangible results will include, for example, valuation plans, assessments and reports, action plans, strategic plans, training sessions, coaching sessions, peer learning sessions, coaches’ notes, facilitators’ notes and status reports.


  1. The Program actually uses the desired methods according to the eight principles for successful capacity building, as suggested in the Human Interaction Research study (listed below in the “Program methods …” section).
  2. The Program methods actually produce these recurring outputs.
  3. Establishment of best practices, and subsequent organizational and program effectiveness, will proceed through short-term outcomes (knowledge about capacity building), intermediate outcomes (skills to use capacity building to implement best practices) and long-term outcomes (having implemented the best practices).
  4. These recurring outputs will contain sufficient information about the status of implementation of the best practices such that various levels of outcomes can be ascertained.

2. Program methods / interventions (capacity building activities)

Program Activities (capacity building activities):

The Program’s methods/interventions are designed according to the eight principles for capacity building effectiveness, which are:

  1. Comprehensive (comprehensive assessments are done and a variety of capacity building activities are used, including assessments, awards, training, coaching, peer learning, etc.).
  2. Customized (according to the life cycle and culture of the organization via assessment and interviews).
  3. Competence-based (capacity building plans are customized to the organization’s resource level).
  4. Timely (capacity building plans are scheduled according to the organization’s resource level).
  5. Peer-connected (a time-tested, peer coaching model is used).
  6. Assessment-based (each organization is assessed via a variety of methods, including two different organizational assessment tools and interviews).
  7. Readiness-based (each organization’s readiness is assessed via a readiness checklist and interviews).
  8. Contextualized (capacity building continually accommodates/adjusts for other current activities within and around the organization).


  1. Each of the organizations will participate as expected in the Program.
  2. Program personnel will be trained and effective in delivering Program services.
  3. The Program’s capacity building methods ultimately will guide participants to implement and operate the best practices.

1. Inputs to the Program


Among the inputs are nonprofit organizational performance “best practices” as defined by the United Way Management Indicators Checklist, which is a comprehensive organizational assessment tool designed by 20 nonprofit organizational development consultants. The best practices are itemized as approximately 170 specific behaviors within a nonprofit organization. The best practices will be embellished with best practices for sustaining a successful collaboration among the participating organizations.

Other inputs are Program funding, eight participating organizations, consultants, trainers, coaches, capacity building “best practices” and facilities.


  1. The Program’s selected “best practices” are those that together, when implemented, will achieve organizational and program effectiveness for each organization. The definition of “organizational effectiveness” has long been under scrutiny. Thus, this Program adopts these operating definitions. An “effective” program achieves desired outcomes among its targeted group of clients and in the timeframe desired. Also, an “effective” organization has ongoing high-quality operations that support ongoing effective programs.
  2. The selected organizations each have programs that, together, achieve the desired community-level outcomes.
  3. These best practices can be organized into the funder’s mandated four areas of outcomes for each participating organization, including development of leadership (Board and staff), organizational systems, program operations and community engagement/awareness.

Articles About Basics of Theory of Change

What is Theory of Change?
What is this thing called 'Theory of Change'?
Theory of Change
Theory of change basics: A primer on theory of change
Theory of change
How Does Theory of Change Work?

Examples of Theory of Change

Theory of Change - Examples
Use of Theory of Change in Health Interventions
How can a Theory of Change framework be applied to short-term international volunteering?
Theory of Change for Strategic Planning
Use of Theory of Change in Project Evaluations
Constructing Theories of Change for Information Society Impact Research

Special Topics About Theory of Change

Evaluating a Theory of Change Framework
Six Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid
How to and how not to develop a theory of change to evaluate a complex intervention

Trainings and Resources About Theory of Change

Center for Theory of Change
Theory of Change Training Curriculum
Theory of Change for Development
Theory of change (numerous articles)

For the Category of Evaluations (Many Kinds):

To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

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