A common objective of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is to have an impact, improve the lives of individuals and foster positive broader social change. Attainment of such an objective requires not only that NGO employees have appropriate skills, but also that a relevant approach is utilised in the design and execution of NGO-run programmes. NGOs strive to achieve meaningful outcomes in their work but are also accountable to donors and other stakeholders. In order to achieve sound outcomes, NGOs need practical methodologies which will be useful in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of a complex programme design. In the present reflection, I provide insights into what is known as theory of change (ToC). This approach is a highly effective and adaptable example of a methodology which can be useful in this regard. ToC is essentially about bringing change and involves a process of design, planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and learning by NGO staff members, government agencies and other practitioners involved in the areas of development and social change. ToC comes from both evaluation and social change traditions and it being used mostly both by development agencies, civil society organisations and donors.
ToC was defined by Weiss (1995, 2000) as ‘a theory of how and why an initiative works’. It is a crucial approach, for it may be relevant in testing and refining our assumptions regarding long or short term changes and allow us to reconsider them as we go along with projects and programmes. ToC is also important as it may provide the opportunity to focus on the expected outcome instead of the activities carried out. The society in which we live is subject to an ongoing process of complex changes at various levels including political, economic, social and cultural. Practitioners and members of organisations play a key role in initiating such changes. It is therefore crucial to pay attention to the mechanics behind these changes as this may allow to (re) channel efforts and skills to enhance outcome that further impact on specific target groups. Adopting the ToC approach may be an opportunity to (re)assess priorities and progress made in relation to the pre-established goals and actual phase of implementation. This may assist NGOs, government branches and other partners involved in a collaborative work to focus not only on long-term impact but to conduct short term projects and guarantee successful outcomes. Turning toward the ToC approach to improve interventions does not necessary mean that all the existing tools in place such as monitoring and evaluation techniques, qualitative and quantitative research methods should be discarded. ToC is a tool that provides project managers, programme directors and coordinators the opportunity to critically (re)think and reflect about the approach, efficiency of the actual efforts, resources and methodologies implemented. Instead of nullifying the existing approaches, ToC has the potential to add, reinforce and complement them by opening up a new perspective that could enable a more efficient design, monitoring and evaluation of policies and projects. It was observed that ‘a theory of change approach demands that we articulate how we think we can contribute to change, that we monitor if change happens the way we thought and with the effects we had anticipated, and that we adjust our interventions and thinking about change according to our lessons learnt’ (Theory of change, how to navigate towards positive change in complex social settings: 2015). Contrary to other methodologies, ToC does not confine itself in implementing a set of activities in a given order to reach certain outcome. Instead it explains how a particular result is to be effectively achieved. Its purpose is about the nexus between the assumptions, objectives and strategies put forward to produce a desired change following the implementation of a project or programme. Kubisch (1997) proposes that a ToC for a programme needs to satisfy three important criteria namely, plausibility, feasibility and testability that must be useful, cost-efficient and effective in achieving Toc’s long-term goals. Plausibility involves the logic of the ToC’s outcomes framework in term of objective and planning. Feasibility is about whether the initiative can realistically expect to achieve the desired change. Testability refers to the choice of appropriate indicators suitable for stakeholders and other parties. In the upcoming developments, I will provide further insights into the rise of ToC in organisations through a review of its origin and evolution, its commonality and objective and its rationale.
There has been little consensus regarding the conceptualisation and evolution of ToC. Weiss (1995) suggests that ToC has first emerged in the United States in the 1990s within the framework of improving evaluation theory and practice in the field of community initiatives. But according to Vogel (2012) the current evolution draws on two streams of development and social programme practice, namely evaluation and informed social practice. Both evaluation and informed social practice stem from the will to consider hypothesis or assumptions on how to bring about change through the form of document and/or diagram providing detailed information pertaining to the expected change. With regard to informed social practice, it was described by Weiss (1995) as ‘a theory of how and why an initiative works.’ It is understood that from the standpoint of evaluation, ToC stems from a broader programme analysis whereas within the development field framework, it is derived from the tradition of logic planning models including the logical framework approach that can be traced back in the seventies. In recent times, ToC has become more and more mainstream as it is connected to the idea of development planning, monitoring and evaluation by placing target groups or communities at the heart of preoccupations. Put differently, ToC is understood in terms of the connection between programmes, projects and outcomes. The capacity to enable such a connection is grounded on Weiss’ idea according to which ‘social programs are based on explicit or implicit theories about how and why the program will work.’
ToC does not emerge from nothing, hence the relevance to explore its common features and objective. As previously mentioned, the ToC approach has been subject to praise and criticisms and therefore its common features and objective presented here may be subject to contestation, which is understandable. The Following refer to some common features of ToC. Firstly, it amounts to an on-going process of reflection to explore change and how it happens – and what that means for the part we play in a particular context, sector and/or group of people. The second characteristic of ToC considers a programme or project within a wider analysis of how change comes about. The main focus here is not on what we plan to do but instead on what we think will change. Thirdly, ToC allows not only to explain our understanding of change but also challenges us to explore it further. The fourth common feature of ToC is the fact that it is often presented in diagrammatic form with an accompanying narrative summary. All these features are available in a document entitled Theory of change an inspirational guide for Development published in 2015.
In terms of the objectives of ToC, four broad categories have been identified. The first one is strategic planning that enables organisations to map the change process, its expected outcomes and facilitates project implementation (UNIFEM:2010). The second category of objective is linked to monitoring and evaluation whereby ToC assists in articulating expected processes and outcomes to be reviewed over time. This allows organisations to assess their contribution to change and revise their ToC approach (UNEG:2011). Another objective focuses on descriptions allowing organisations to communicate their chosen change process to internal and external partners (Ellis et al. 2011). The fourth category of objective relates to learning or ToC as a thinking tool that assist people in clarifying and developing the theory behind their organisation or programme.
There are various explanations for relying on the ToC approach. First of all, it is a useful tool for all stages of the project or programme cycle. Organisations and government branches that rely on this approach may improve their strategy by outlining common understanding in articulating the extent to which their activities, programmes and project contribute and effect social changes. Secondly, ToC has the potential to strengthen the project design not only by focusing on change but also by taking into account internal and external factors that may or may not influence the intervention. ToC can also be used during the implementation stage to identify which indicators must be monitored, and to explain and provide information to staffs and other partners about how the programme or intervention works. In an impact evaluation for instance, this approach might be useful for identifying the data that need to be collected and how they should be analysed. Thirdly, the ToC approach provides room for strategic adjustment and improvement of ongoing activities and projects, provide a framework for review, learning, improves partnership and supports organisational development. In other words, ToC can allow partners and stakeholders involved in the same intervention to compartmentalise their activities thereby outlining the role and contribution of each partner. In so doing, a team building spirit and collaboration in a participatory manner is established and a unifying framework for innovative thinking, strategic decision-making and communication is established. With regard to target communities, it may contribute to empower people to become more active and involved in programme design and implementation.
In this reflection, I have provided some insights into the rise of ToC in organisations which is a crucial approach to improving the work of NGOs, governments agencies and other practitioners involved in the field of development and social change. However, despite the praise and the rationale behind the rise of ToC in organisations, it is worth nothing that, this approach is not a magic wand that can instantly solve all current and future problems to achieve sound results. The ToC approach may lead to some misunderstandings especially in collaborative activities, programmes and projects involving various partners with different visions, conceptions and priorities. In addition to this, despite the fact that ToC is becoming a mainstream methodology, there is a possibility to combine it with existing tools and approaches such as monitoring and evaluation, qualitative and quantitative research methods, inductive and deductive reasoning and still, there is no absolute guarantee that from this combination will emerge a perfect outcome. Overall, in terms of designing a ToC approach, it is essential to firstly outline the aim that will sustain the use of ToC in activities, projects and programmes. In so doing, a relevant situation analysis is required. This amounts to identifying the problem and its causes to be addressed as well as explicit outcomes and expected consequences and impacts. Designing an efficient ToC aimed at addressing how to move from a current undesired situation to a desired change. This generally follows two steps process, that is a theory about how this change will come about and a theory about how the actual intervention will trigger this change. As I am about to close this reflection, I have the feeling that it sounds too much theory and that is why to deepen the reader’s understanding on this approach, ‘theory of change in organisations: a stepwise approach’ which is an excrescence and a detailed practical aspect of the current piece was made available. In sum, ToC is a long-term process which requires significant investments not only in terms of efforts, skills and time but it also depends on the will of programme leaders, project managers and coordinators to turn it into an organisational culture.
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