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Theory of change (TOC)

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What is theory of change?

Theory of Change (ToC) explains your organization's intended path to impact by outlining causal linkages in an initiative (i.e., its shorter-term, intermediate, and long-term outcomes). The identified changes are mapped in an "outcome map" that shows the logical relationship and chronological flow between long-term outcomes along the path to the desired impact. The links between desired outcomes are explained by "rationales" or statements of why one outcome is considered a prerequisite for another and can be updated based on evaluation evidence. 

For example, it has been assumed that improving children's educational desired long-term outcomes in a region will lead to the community's ability to adapt to new agricultural practices when these children reach adulthood, thereby improving the yield of mint.  

This assumes that the children will remain in the region and work on farms. However, what if an unintended consequence of improved education was losing these young adults to higher-paying jobs in urban areas, depriving the farming community of labor and skills?  

By building the theory of change of this project, we clarify the underlying assumptions and know what supporting evidence to seek at each stage to confirm that the project is on track to deliver the intended long-term outcome.

Let's take an example problem statement and understand the theory of change. 

Address the problem of low crop production and unsustainable income for farmers in 
South Africa due to a lack of training in climate resilience, our theory of change would
include the following elements:



  1. Funding and resources for training programs and support services
  2. Partnerships with local organizations and experts in climate resilience


  1. Development and implementation of climate resilience training programs for farmers
  2. Provision of support services, such as counseling and legal assistance, to help farmers apply and integrate climate resilience practices into their farming operations

  1. Trained farmers with increased knowledge and skills in climate resilience
  2. Improved access to support services for farmers


  1. Increased crop production and income for farmers
  2. Improved climate resilience and adaptive capacity of farming operations


  1. Sustainable income and improved livelihoods for farmers in South Africa
  2. Increased food security and resilience to climate change impacts in the region


Overall, our theory of change is based on the belief that by providing training and 
support to farmers in South Africa, we can help them to increase their crop production,
improve their income, and build resilience to climate change.
This will ultimately contribute to sustainable livelihoods and food security in the region.

A practical theory of change SHOULD HAVE a strong alignment with data strategy derived
from metrics and analytics goals. Many organizations need help to achieve their stated
mission when they treat impact, data, and reporting separately.




Theory of change model

Currently, the two most accepted and widespread frameworks to document your impact measurement and management strategy are the Theory of Change and the 5 Dimensions of Impact by the Impact Management Project. We often recommend that social enterprises or nonprofits start with designing the organization’s Theory of Change.

The Theory of Change is the foundation for any mission-driven initiative solving the globe's most pressing social and environmental issues.  The primary use of the theory of change is to understand the desired outcome.

Theory of change or change theory, referred to as T. O. C. The Theory of Change documents the impact your organization seeks to achieve and all the intermediate steps to ensure that your activities and resources are aligned with said change. The theory of evolution should be defined before starting any new initiative or project and revised periodically.

Let's start by discussing what makes the Theory of Change such a fundamental step.

All the operational decisions around what outcome data to collect, assess, and analyze, AS well as the changes that need to be made to improve the effectiveness of your intervention, ALL depend on your Theory of Change. 

The critical value of this framework is that it fosters accountability and awareness about the potential challenges your organization might face while pursuing its mission. 

As mentioned before, the theory of change ideally needs to be defined before starting your initiative, project, or program. 

These initiatives might have a broad scope, such as Higher Education, Health and Wellness, or Financial Inclusion. Or, they might have a narrow range, such as Job Readiness, Maternal Health, or Housing Loans. 

Whatever program structure you decide to use, please ensure that it aligns with your Mission statement and does not overcomplicate it. Even if you work with partner organizations across a broad spectrum of issue areas, stick to outcomes that are a significant part of the scope of your organization. 

Now, we're ready to create a sample Theory of Change for an organization called "AmericaWorks" with the program "Skills Development."  

We'll start from the desired impact and work backward to the resources we're putting into our programs to make this impact or change happen.

How to optimize the Theory of change?

Step by step by guide to optimizing theory of change  


  • 01 Impact
  • 02 Outcomes
  • 03 Outputs
  • 04 Activities
  • 05 Inputs

The impact is the systemic change that you expect to see in the long-term. Impact usually takes a few years to happen, which makes it difficult to measure, but it does give us a great foundation to define the outcomes which are within our reach to influence and measure. 

Outcomes are the intended and unintended changes that your stakeholders are experiencing or might experience with your intervention. In other words, outcomes are the broader benefits we work to achieve. In our Skills Development example, one outcome could be “increasing job placement”. How do we know that we are increasing job placement? - By keeping an eye on the number of people placed and retained after their onboarding training.

A well-designed Theory of Change should include long term outcomes, mid term outcomes, and short-term outcomes. As you demonstrate a clear improvement in your outcomes, you are more likely to get other players such as government or public and private partners to step in to help you scale your mission.

Good outcome measurement requires designing a stakeholder survey that includes baseline, mid-line, and exit line results.

The outputs are the immediate results of our activities or products, and they are necessary for achieving the outcomes. Think of them as positive indicators that the outcomes are on track. 

As per our Skills Development example, one output could be the “increase in the number of people graduating from our business training”. In this case, we are assuming that as more and more people go through quality marketable training, there is a greater possibility of an increase in successful job placements. To dig deeper, collecting some demographic data, along with service data can help to draw useful connections.
In this step, we answer the question “what activities need to take place for each output to happen?”

Providing people with high-quality training is one of the activities directly aligned with our sample output and outcome. Along with quality skill-building training, an activity can also include resume preparation or interview preparation. All of these increase the number of successful placement possibilities.
Inputs refer to the resources or investments needed to ensure that the activities take place. According to our example, we need quality course materials, skilled trainers, a physical venue, or an online host, investment, and more.
Best Practices

Theory of change framework

  • The five components of a Theory of Change are- Inputs, Activities, Outputs, Outcomes, and Impact.
  • The theory of change needs to be aligned to your initiative, project, or program and stated mission. 
  • The most important components to monitor are the Outputs and Outcomes, so make sure to define relevant metrics and track results over time. 
  • And, Everywhere possible, we should include stakeholder's data, such as demographics and surveys to capture their feedback. 
  • Involve your key stakeholders. A stakeholder is any person who benefited or affected by your activities.
  • Communicate your intent to implement or improve your impact measurement and management strategy. In the beginning, this might be done through information sessions open to anyone interested in learning more about the new impact measurement process. 
  • Remember that the desired outcomes motivate people. Be sure to expose the need for change to the whole organization and clearly describe how the change will benefit each organization's area.


Do not go overboard and spend months building a theory of change. The point is to just build a theory of change with clear immediate outcomes.  Run effective impact experiments aligned to immediate outcomes.  The goal is to listen to needs of your beneficiaries.

Short and Frequent Impact Experiments

In the previous section, we discussed the fundamentals of the Theory of Change. Now it is time to test your theory of change. To understand our concept better, let us take a simple example. The Green Foundation is working towards breaking the cycle of poverty in America through job creation. One of the programs is skill-building classes for post-high school students from underserved communities. Let's put the Theory of Change for this Skill Building Program to the test. As your design, your theory of change in action, make sure to focus on the key message in this video.

1. Stakeholders

  • Who is benefiting from your work?
  • And Why will it work?

Here stakeholders are identified as post-high school students from underserved communities in the USA. Why do you think your program is needed and will work for your stakeholders? We assume that underserved community students are most affected by the unemployment that your investment strategy or business aims to address. Do your due diligence. This is where you also have to follow existing evidence or ask your community for the gaps your program will solve by stakeholder feedback.

  • Is unemployment is one of the burning issues of your community?
  • Do they have demand for the skill training you are providing?
  • Are local companies ready to hire students after they finish their training?

2. Program Goal

  • What result are you seeking to achieve?

The goal of the Green foundation is to break the poverty cycle in the USA. Short-term goals will be the unemployment rate going down in communities they serve and other life skills. A good theory of change doesn’t simply reflect what an organization is already doing. It rather articulates what the organization wants to be held accountable for. Thus, make your goal specific and set an accountability target.

3. Duration

  • How soon will you achieve the desired results?

Define your program's time period, and how soon will you be able to see the result? It depends on how long is the skill-building program. Many variables, such as resume building, interview preparation, hiring companies aligned, skills match to the industry requirements, no other social or cultural boundaries are identified. Plan to collect and analyze year after year data to see the progress

4. Input and Activities

  • How will you achieve and demonstrate your results?

Describe the activities and resources you will allocate to address the problem and create an impact. Here identifying the students and their strengths, teaching skills, training teachers, engaging hiring companies, etc., all are key actions that you will take as part of your strategy for creating impact.

5. Context, Limitation, and Risk

  • Where and under what circumstances will you do your work?

Describe any limitations to your theory. Consider your constraints such as economic distress and low hiring by the area companies or health outbreaks such as COVID19. There could be things outside your control. Consider the risks and limitations for achieving your goals. Make a plan to avoid and work-a-round the risks.

6. Identify the key agent of change

Identify the early adopters within the different departments – the individuals who seem most excited about the potential change and want to be part of it. Next, provide those individuals with training to be well-versed in the objectives and goals and the methodologies and tools used to apply them. Throughout the process, these are the individuals you will want to keep informed and updated. They will help keep everyone else updated as well. Be sure to listen to their feedback. All this feedback will help you make small adjustments to make the change smoother.

7. Reinforcement

Recognize those making an effort to adopt the new process. Show how the benefits are starting to happen. Communicate how this new impact strategy helps your organization, either in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, or any other element relevant to your organization’s culture. Try to adapt the implementation process around the organic inclinations of those involved.

8. Invest in innovation

Well designed tools can make the process a lot simpler and easy for stakeholder engagement. Using multiple tools that are not made for impact data management can be very time-consuming and resource-draining in the long run.

9. Verify assumptions fast 

A Theory of Change (ToC) documents the change (impact) that you seek for both accountability and the internal awareness of potential organizational challenges. In the theory of change, the primary challenges indicated are your underlying assumptions. 
An assumption (no matter how strongly you believe it to be true) is, after all, an assumption. Woven into the fabric of every Theory of Change is at least one grand assumption. For example, providing free shoes improves the overall quality of life. As we saw with Toms Shoes, an assumption that is not thoroughly explored can negatively affect consequences. In this case, in-kind donations replaced local markets and hurt the economy of the community served. 
When researching the Theory of Change, you will quickly realize how complex it is. Mapping out the long-term path you intend to take to surface the hidden assumptions is no easy task. There are hundreds of different examples of Theory of change to build from, along with thoughtfully constructed templates.

10. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate

Avoid being too ambitious with your first theory of change. A theory of change should be seen as a working document with year after year long-term impact learning in mind.
A theory of change must clarify what results will hold an organization accountable?

Iterate through your framework based on key assumptions.

That is why Sopact Impact Cloud® allows our clients to build Impact Strategy with Theory of Change at any stage of their Impact Measurement journey. Impact strategy and success metrics can be continuously updated to reflect learning and new situations. Continuous learning from the data takes them to meet program goals and perhaps scale social impact.


The Center for Theory of Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting best practices in ToC, has created a valuable database of existing Theory of Change models from organizations worldwide.

Here are a few direct links to some of those examples:


To better demonstrate, we share a few TOC templates designed in the Impact Cloud™.  As practitioners, you can review and start designing your impact measurement within minutes.

Theory of Change Education

What is the problem that we are trying to solve?

If we reach out to children in Crisis and Conflict-Affected Environments by having quality programs, trained teachers, and learning materials, it improves student learning outcomes, measured by the Average Student Test Score, and ultimately provides quality education.

Theory of change Diagram

Click to see example strategy

education public.bak

Theory of Change Energy

What is the problem that we are trying to solve?

If we invest in clean energy by increasing investment and access to clean energy, then we can achieve environmental benefits, improved health of people, and economic growth of people, and ultimately, we can improve the quality of life of people and the planet.


Click to see an example Theory of  Change strategy


energy public.bak


Theory of Change Agriculture

What is the problem that we are trying to solve?

If we Formalize the informal farm-to-market sector by providing a stable, fair market for horticulture crops, transporting goods using cold-storage, and distributing to food buyers, then it will improve productivity and incomes for smallholder farmers and informal vendors. and ultimately BUILD PROSPERITY

Click to see example theory of change strategy


smallholder farmers public.bak


Theory of change in Impact Investment

While there is a relative consensus that impact management is critical to impact investing, mission-driven organizations tend to focus more on "impact measurement" than management. To have good impact measurement, it is essential to have systems, tools, and resources to manage impact at all levels.

The primary driver for impact management is to ensure investees or grantees better understand the social and financial effects of their product or services. In short, this helps encourage accountability to the Theory of Change of an organization and/or a funder.

Strong impact management also enables these actors to better align high-level outcomes with the lower level and drive impact learnings at the funder level.

Collaborative impact management, for example, when investors help investees improve their data management capacity, can improve both stakeholders' impact outcomes. Investees can make better data collection decisions, which will eventually inform important management decisions.

 To promote Theory of Change accountability, there are many key questions that investors must address with investees in their portfolio:

  • The distinction between expected impact and realized impact. It is important to have normative benchmarks for impact performance to set realistic expectations and compare them with the actual.
  • The relationship between aggregation and financial incentives.
  • Not over claiming impact
  • Aggregation across asset classes and attribution. 
  • The incentives, financial and otherwise, around all of this are key. If there is a (perceived) risk on the management team’s part that a stakeholder group will get pissed off if you engage them about their experience, they are generally wary of doing so unless there are perceived benefits of doing so (which may be in the form of encouragement to learning from board members).
  • Data collection has cost implications and thus requires some decisions up front. We need to define who the data's consumers are and their interests; we also need to determine what we want to influence and how we will do that. The challenge is balancing, prioritizing, and responding to all these data requirements at the same time.
  • There is much discussion about cost. But it is important to realize that the intended benefit of defining outcomes is not necessarily that you have an accurate accounting but that you are accounting for the organization by working with beneficiaries.  Engaging them properly and having a system that properly understands beneficiaries' needs will improve overall outcomes for all involved.

Read More:  Attribution Vs Contribution in Impact Measurement 



Now that we know what is Theory of Change, why it is important to have one, and what are those essential elements it includes, the question is, how do we start? You can refer step by step guidance in Actionable Impact Management Guide.

Each step builds on the last you might have noticed, but each step is designed to inform the next. Skipping steps might lead to inconsistencies in the impact measurement strategy you are designing. You can use some of the templates provided in the Guidebook. 

There is some Theory of Change tools available, and they can help in the initial strategy. They do not have a complete data management thought process behind them, so they only provide primary design.

Challenges of effective theory of change

If you work within a designated community toward its general improvement, you face some unique challenges when formatting your impact framework. You may find that funding's internal politics plays a particularly prominent role within such a condensed environment. You might also find that your organization’s focus areas are fluid and occasionally stretched to incorporate an organization whose scope rests outside the main categories.

Maybe you’re not worried about your program structure. After all, what’s the use of a well-defined program structure? Well, it all boils down to impact communication. Your organization's program structure is a blueprint of your organization’s impact identity. Program Structure is one of Actionable Impact Management's first activities.

A simple program structure might look like this:

It turns out that the structure of programming is not one-size-fits-all. This is especially true of organizations with a fluid set of focus areas. Community foundations, impact funds, or impact investors who focus on place rather than issue all have a similar problem regarding the program structure outlined above. Namely, that it does not account for their Vision and Mission. Your goal is to strengthen a community – not further education or safety.

To answer for this while continuing to communicate the importance of the focus areas, you might distinguish between what your organization cares about and how your organization cares by structuring your programs in the following way:

This helps to remind your staff, board, and advisors of the scope of your organization's activities while also embedding the focus areas that represent the intended community impact.

Program Theory Of Change

Once you have defined the complete program structure, you can start building a theory of change for each program.  Each program needs to realize common indicators that can allow organizations to define aggregate results

Why go beyond the traditional Theory of change ToC tools to advanced ToC driven platforms?

Once you build ToC, the next step is selecting Metrics. It will become complicated when metrics have to be aligned with standards just as SDGs, IRIS, BOND, etc., collect data, analyze, get insight, and report.  

Unlike many theory-of-change-based software or tools, Impact Cloud is the fastest way to build an overall impact strategy and start a data-driven impact journey.

Key Innovative Features include:

  • Build multiple Theory of Change as per different program needs
  • Use industry-aligned indicator sets or metrics sets.
  • Use well-defined outcome and survey sets.
  • Impact Statement to refine the impact strategy
  • Impact Map as Impact Knowledge Graph
  • Global Impact Metrics Catalog
  • Align with Standard Global Indicators
  • Create Custom Indicators
  • Align with Impact Thesis (Custom vs. Sustainable Development Goals and Targets)
  • Data Strategy
  • Automatically calculate impact results.
  • The broad range of reporting formats 


The Theory of Change is the foundation for any mission-driven initiative to solve the globe’s most pressing social and environmental issues.  Sometimes referred to as T. O. C., the Theory of Change documents the impact that your organization is seeking to achieve and all the intermediate steps to make sure that your activities and resources are well aligned with said change.  Before starting any new initiative or project, the TOC should be defined and needs to be revised periodically as your initiative evolves.