Theory of Change

What is a Theory of Change?

A Theory of Change (ToC) is a formative evaluation method, meaning it is usually done at the beginning or during a project to inform or improve project planning or design (Frey, 2018). Such process-based evaluation can help identify strengths and weaknesses of a project (Schaefer, 2021).

Through a ToC process it can be assessed whether and how outcomes or process changes can be achieved or (if done ex post) were achieved. A ToC can illustrate and describe “how and why a desired change is expected to occur [or occurred] in a specific problem context” (Belcher, Davel and Claus, 2020). This helps to monitor changes in a system to which your intervention may have contributed.

One of the goals for a ToC process can be to determine how a project can achieve the impact it desires to make. Based on the assumption that creating impact is a non-linear process, but instead a web of causes and effects, a ToC process is often build around defining a project’s activities and subsequential outputs, to achieve desired outcomes and ultimately impact. As mentioned, make clear why and how the output from an activity is expected to work in support of the outcome and impact.

A ToC starts by identifying a clear problem you are contributing to and working backwards to establish preconditions for reaching that goal. Key elements in developing a ToC are: 

  1. Mission or bigger goal your work is contributing to (description of context, current state and other actors able to influence change)
  2. Main actors either involved in the process or who have a stake in the work (long-term outcomes that you seek to support and for whose ultimate benefit)
  3. Main activities, their resulting outputs, and outcomes (broad sequence of events anticipated (or required) to lead to the desired long-term outcome)

During the ToC process all these elements are unpacked and underlying assumptions about how change happens are made explicit. Often assumptions underlie the logic of going from activities through outputs and outcomes to impact. Making this explicit helps to understand and make clear for yourself why and how you expect the output from an activity to work in support of the outcome and impact.

Why should it be used? 

ToC is a central tenet to creating societal impact. The purpose of the ToC process is to allow people to think about what must change before doing it. It can be seen as a general steppingstone to impact related work with a multitude of potential use cases, such as writing impact narratives, impact sections in grant applications, monitoring progress or evaluation. Although it is good to realise a ToC does not provide a specific implementation plan but rather a direction; think compass, not map.

A major benefit comes from making different views and assumptions about the change process explicit, especially seemingly obvious ones. Within multi-stakeholder projects there may be different perspectives or even different realities regarding what the desired change is, why it is desired and how it could and should happen. A shared ToC process can facilitate bringing these differences to the surface and develop a sense for what drives different stakeholders and their understanding of the problem. This process can be quite confrontational, especially if done in an organisation or team, but can contribute to a more shared understanding of a project’s purpose and strategic choices (Es, 2015).

When should it be used?

A ToC can be used throughout the whole span of a project – ex-ante to ex-post. Depending on the context or stage of a project in which the ToC is being used, there are different benefits. Using a ToC as an ex-ante planning tool can facilitate critical reflections on ‘what needs to change’ before doing it and can therefore allow for a project to be planned and designed towards impact. Further, as a monitoring and evaluation tool, it can help to adapt activities where needed to assure they are still aiding to reach the desired outcomes. As an ex-post assessment tool, it allows you to trace back which activities led to which outcomes in the change process. A retrospective ToC becomes more accurate when it can build upon a ToC done prospectively (Belcher & Claus, 2020).

How can it be used?

Most often a ToC is done in a workshop setting with multiple stakeholders present. Such a setting allows for deliberate conversations about assumptions regarding the change process. A ToC can facilitate these conversations by using it as a framework to guide the conversation and through that shape the project.

Belcher (2020) describe the chain from activities through outputs and outcomes to impact through different spheres:

  • Sphere of control – direct influence: What the project does
    • Activities: the insights that are needed to bring about the desired outcomes and how these insights will be gained
    • Outputs: the tangible products as a result of the activities. ​Usually expressed as nouns, tangible and can be counted (15 trainings, 5 market entry activities, 20 technical assistance missions).
  • Sphere of influence – indirect influence: Who the project works with and through
    • Outcomes: relate to changes in behaviour, relationships, actions, and activities of stakeholders resulting from exchange of knowledge and the uptake of research outputs. Identify who has to do what differently to achieve the desired impact. Changes can be:​
      • Instrumental: plans, decisions, behaviour, practices, actions, policies​
      • Conceptual: changes to knowledge, awareness, attitudes, emotions that contribute to the understanding of issues and reframing debates​
      • Capacity building: technical and personal skills and expertise​
      • Network: number and quality of relationships and trust​
      • Knowledge culture: attitudes towards knowledge exchange and impact itself
  • Sphere of interest – higher level project aims, outside of project influence:Improved conditions that the project hopes to see
    • Impact: A deliberate chain of activities and conditions by which the potential impact that the project is aiming for could be realized

Underlying all of this is the belief that engaging with stakeholders throughout the project and the activities increases the chance for productive interactions, leading to impact.

Actively thinking about and defining these aspects for a project helps align expectations and guide the project towards reaching its higher aims and achieving societal impact.

What is obtained?

The output of a ToC process is not necessarily a tangible product since the added value comes from the process itself and the resulting conversations. However, a ToC process can result in a graphical depiction and/or impact narrative of the impact pathways identified throughout the process. Such a ToC narrative can be a useful starting point for a SEP case study impact narrative. If there is a specific desired outcome product, the process needs to be designed to facilitate reaching this goal.

Who is a stakeholder and who is involved in an assessment using this method?

Participants in a ToC workshop usually include the research project management, beneficiaries, and ideally any key stakeholders who will be engaged (i.e., consulted, informed, or involved) in the research. It is useful to have a facilitator moderate the discussion (Belcher & Claus, 2020). When ToC is used as an evaluation tool it is particularly relevant to include key stakeholders in the process.

How to do it?

  • Detailed inspiration on how to set up a Theory of Change workshop
  • ESI Miro board material for Theory of Change workshop


Belcher, 2020. A refined method for theory-based evaluation of the societal impacts of research. Published by Elsevier B.V.

Belcher B, Claus R 2020. Theory of Change. td-net toolbox profile (5). Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences: td-net toolbox for co-producing knowledge.

Es et al., 2015. Hivos ToC Guidelines: Theory of Change thinking in practice.

Frey, B. (2018). The SAGE encyclopedia of educational research, measurement, and evaluation (Vols. 1-4). Thousand Oaks,, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781506326139

Schaefer, T., Kieslinger, B., Brandt, M., van den Bogaert, V. (2021). Evaluation in Citizen Science: The Art of Tracing a Moving Target. In: , et al. The Science of Citizen Science. Springer, Cham.

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