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Alan Pierce 5/3/19 3:26 PM 4 min read

5 Ways to Improve Nonprofit Theory of Change

Every nonprofit should define a theory of change (TOC). We know that this doesn’t happen in many organizations, and even worse still, when it does, the TOC remains poorly constructed without much real value for optimizing organizational strategy.

In this article, we’ll look at five key elements that nonprofit managers should focus on when constructing a good theory of change model.

The objective here is to ensure that the TOC can actually serve as a tool to execute and improve upon an intervention. Before diving in, let’s briefly look at the definition of the theory of change.

What is the Theory of Change?

A theory of change model maps out an organization’s path to impact, specifying causal relationships between activities and eventual outcomes. Those outcomes can be in the short, medium, and/or long term.


Ultimately, the TOC is a tool for organizations to understand and communicate the rationale behind why it is believed that a program or intervention will deliver the impact that the organization seeks to create.

Read More: How to Implement Theory of Change Software?

nonprofit theory of change example

How to Improve Nonprofit Theory of Change

Keeping in mind that a TOC should go beyond the simple mapping of what activities you intend to carry out, we’ll share here five elements you should refine in your models to be sure your TOC works for your organization, your teams, and your beneficiaries.


1. Outcomes, outcomes, outcomes

Do you know the difference between outputs and outcomes? A TOC should have both but is often lacking in the latter. An outcome is a change that has occurred because of the activities you have undertaken with an intervention. Outputs usually only demonstrate that, for example, a certain amount of activities have occurred (number of hours of training, number of products delivered, etc.).

A TOC must show how those outputs then lead to change (outcomes). It is not enough to conduct activities; there needs to be some rationale linking the execution of those activities with expected changes in the lives of beneficiaries.

Read More: What you need to know from outcome to operations impact management.

2. Include stakeholders in your TOC model

The reasons here are twofold. First, it is essential that you involve key stakeholders in the construction of your TOC. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any intervention or program in the world that exists solely on its own or impact that is created solely by the actions of one actor.

Talk to beneficiaries, funders, local leaders, sector experts, etc., so that you can validate your own assumptions about how the change will be created through your program(s).

Secondly, the model itself should include those actors that play a complementary role in creating your eventual intended outcomes. For example, let’s say you are constructing wells in rural communities in India. To do so, you need buy-in from local leaders who can persuade those communities to get on board. Those local leaders are a key element of your theory of change and need to be included in the model.

Read More: How to Select Impact Metrics for Your Investors?

3. Supplement your Theory of Change with a narrative

Unlike a logic model, a theory of change model should be accompanied by a written narrative that explains some of the underlying assumptions and the causality rationale displayed in the impact flow.

In this example from the Advocacy Initiative, you can see that they have included a detailed written component in addition to the theory of change map (seen at the end of the document).

This gives important external and internal stakeholders a full picture of how organizational activities impact.

Read More: Effective Nonprofit Social impact reporting

4. Use the TOC to improve program design for Non-profit Organizations

The construction of a theory of change can help an organization better design a program. Investigation and the careful construction of the causal pathways in the TOC can go a long way to improving how a program is designed and implemented.

Creating a thorough TOC before launching a program enables an organization to make key strategic design decisions that enhance the probability of program success.

Read More: Relationship between TOC and Program Design for Impact Evaluation

5. Create an accountability plan for your Non-Profit TOC Model

The most ineffective TOC is created before a program launch and then reviewed after program completion. It should serve as a tool during implementation to supplement your Monitoring and Evaluation processes.

Once a program is in motion, the TOC gives program managers a foundational framework for conducting evaluation activities. Each element can be scrutinized as to its causal role in creating intended outcomes and adjusted accordingly as needed based on insights gleaned.

Read More: How to Implement and Impact Reporting Framework?

Optimizing Application of Theory of Change in Nonprofit Organizations

theory of change for nonprofits

A nonprofit will often do its general due diligence and have some theory of change model which describes its intended path to impact. But if it really wants its TOC to bring value to the organization, it must take TOC construction seriously.

That means leveraging the construction process also to improve program design. Stakeholders need to be involved in that construction and, of course, in the flow of the ultimately created model (including the narrative).

It also means leveraging the TOC during program implementation to support monitoring and evaluation processes.

Read More: Theory behind social impact experiments

The result of a well-executed TOC strategy?

Better outcomes and better lives for the target beneficiaries -- which is the reason why any nonprofit begins to construct a theory of change model in the first place.

Interested in designing or re-designing your TOC? Get started for free today with our cloud-based application. Learn More about Groundworks.


Alan Pierce

Alan is a social sector consultant and one of the founding directors of Quantica Education, a school of social entrepreneurship in Colombia.