Secrets to a Theory of Change That Attracts Funders and Drives Impact

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By Laura Deaton

You’ve probably heard “theory of change” bandied about by consultants or funders and may have wondered why such a vague concept is getting so much airplay. It’s because a persuasive theory of change is essential to landing expanded, ongoing funding and creating programs that can deliver the impact you’re seeking. Nonprofit leaders are starting to recognize this, but many get sidetracked by a flawed theory development process into frustrating detours and dead ends. Getting — and staying — on the right path requires first understanding the behavioral shifts that create change and then avoiding pitfalls at key stages.

Funders are focused on macro condition change. They want to invest in initiatives that can move us from where we are today to a better future state — for example, from widespread homelessness to safe housing for everyone. Convincing funders that your approach can help drive a shift on that scale requires a theory built on the hierarchy of change.

Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in psychology, the hierarchy of change defines the process of condition change in stages. The lowest level of change is knowledge: educating people about a problem. The next is fostering beliefs or attitudes that lead them to act on that knowledge. The desire to act then leads to acquiring needed skills. Using those skills results in behavior change and that leads to the goal of condition change.

Change efforts often hit a chasm between skills development and behavior change, and a plausible theory of change anticipates that. It also targets interventions where they are most needed, reflects a sophisticated understanding of cultural factors, and emphasizes the middle part of the change process, which focuses on changing behavior. When a theory of changes falls flat, it’s usually because of weaknesses in one of the following foundation areas.

Understanding the Ecosystem

Understanding the ecosystem — who else is working on this problem, what they’re doing, who they’re working with and the current stage of change — is an essential first step.

This step is often an “a-ha” moment. You could easily find you need to shift your whole organization because the work you’re doing is not crucial or duplicates the work of others, or there are limited opportunities to advance to the next stage of change.

Many organizations overlook this assessment and end up presenting funders with programming others are already carrying out.

Accounting for Community Culture and Emerging Threats

The chasm between acquiring skills or tools and changing behavior often opens up when the theory of change depends on logic the affected community doesn’t share. Even for organizations that are rooted in their communities, it’s easy to miss cultural factors that might derail what seems like a compelling model for durable, positive change.

For example, say you have a community wealth-building strategy centered on providing long-term, low-interest loans to entrepreneurs, with the expectation that they will leverage this patient capital to build higher-growth businesses that employ more people. If the entrepreneurs have learned from their family or community history that debt is a trap, they may take less than they could use or pay off loans earlier than they need to. The necessary investment in growth won’t happen and you’ll need a different strategy or structure to get the change you want.

External factors also affect community-based initiatives. Climate change is throwing many organizations for a loop — it’s clear the future will look quite different everywhere. Nonprofits working in highly affected areas, such as coastal communities and the U.S. South, should start developing theories of change now that account for the assets these communities will lose and those they’ll retain, and that consider broader regional strategies for economic security and environmental health.

Mapping Out the Muddlesome Middle

Backward mapping — identifying the interventions your organization is performing or will perform to create the desired change — is the central activity in developing a theory of change. Most teams can plot out the next two to three years and paint a picture of the world they’re trying to achieve in 2050. It’s the muddlesome middle — eight or 10 years out — where they get hung up. Figuring what needs to happen by 2030 so that the next generation has the tools and resources to move change forward to 2050 is hard for any of us to do, but it’s essential work.

Your best resource may be historical data. What do you think is possible based on what you’ve seen during the prior five years? What has enabled progress — or caused setbacks — on your issue? What would today look like if the work done over the last five years hadn’t happened? Use this analysis to make forward projections.

Refining the Theory

Once you have a compelling theory of change, keep refining it. Nonprofits whose theory of change is no longer working will find their funders melting away along with unrealized impact. Those that keep their theory of change current and pay ongoing attention to external forces, their ecosystem and new data can adapt accordingly and leap the chasm into real, lasting change.

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