theory of change

Understanding the theory of change

Reading time: about 6 min


  • Strategic planning

Many businesses engage in social impact initiatives with the goal of making positive and meaningful social changes on a local, country-wide, or global scale. The idea is to develop a program or programs that address social issues, improve quality of life, promote sustainability, address environmental issues, influence policy changes, and more.

To maximize the impact of your initiatives and to measure how successful they are, it’s critical that you have a well-defined strategy and solid planning. A good strategy and plan are essential for setting goals and understanding the purpose of your initiative. This is where the Theory of Change model comes in. It provides a framework for designing, implementing, and evaluating your social initiatives and for making sure that you achieve your desired outcomes.

What is the Theory of Change?

The Theory of Change model is a framework that helps you to develop a comprehensive sketch of what you expect a desired outcome will be and what you will do to achieve that outcome. It gives company leadership and stakeholders a clear picture of the sequential steps and processes that need to be done to reach goals.

The Theory of Change framework is based on outcomes. It helps everybody involved to clearly identify and define long-term goals and determine outcomes that must be in place to reach those goals. Knowing what your desired outcomes are helps you to go back and identify and map out the activities that will lead to those outcomes. This approach helps you to more fully understand the link between necessary activities—how change actually happens—and your long-term goals. This understanding leads to better program planning and better evaluation as you measure your progress toward your long-term goals.

Origins of the Theory of Change

There is not a single origin point for the Theory of Change, but it is considered to have its roots in the Kirkpatrick Model, developed by Dr. Donald Kirkpatrick in the 1950s, as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of training and learning programs.

The Kirkpatrick Model evolved into logical frameworks (logframes), a planning tool used to provide an overview of a project’s goals, activities, and anticipated results. But logframes were not considered to be an effective way to evaluate social change programs because it wasn’t clear what the program goals were or how the goals would be achieved. 

In the 1990s, the Roundtable on Community Change at the Aspen Institute addressed the limitations of logframes. This led to the publication of New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives in 1995. Carol Weiss, a contributor to the book, wrote that stakeholders are unclear about how a change process will happen, so they don’t pay much attention to the “mini-steps” that need to happen before the goal is reached.

From there, Weiss popularized the term “theory of change” as a way to describe the steps that have to happen to reach a goal and the link between program activities and their outcomes.

How to use the Theory of Change model

Developing a theory of change is not a project to do on your own. You should include team members, managers, executives, and other stakeholders to get input from various perspectives. What is included in your Theory of Change will vary depending on what your goals and desired outcomes are. The following steps can help you to create an effective theory of change framework.

Step 1: Identify the problem and define your goals

In this step, you want to clearly state what your theory of change will address. Identify the positive change you expect to see in your work culture, in the local community, in the world, etc. Be clear and specific about the goals you expect to achieve with this initiative.

Step 2: Determine the outputs and outcomes

After you’ve identified your goals, you work backward to identify the outcomes and outputs that need to happen so you can reach those goals. An output is a tangible deliverable or result that comes from your activities. An outcome is a benefit or change that results from the output. 

For example, you might implement an initiative that encourages employees to commute to work using public transportation. An output might be to commit 50% of employees to use public transit. An outcome might be something like a 33% reduction in carbon emissions from employees using public transit.

In this step, you also need to describe the preconditions or requirements that need to be in place in order to reach your goals. For example, free or heavily reduced bus passes might be a prerequisite for convincing employees to take public transportation. You also need to explain why these prerequisites are needed to reach your goals.

Step 3: Define inputs and activities

Inputs are the resources that you’ll need to achieve your desired outputs and outcomes. Activities are the specific actions, processes, and steps you’ll take to turn the inputs into outputs and outcomes. 

For example, to get the outputs and outcomes you want in a public transportation initiative, an activity might be entering a partnership with the local transit authority to get discounted passes.

Step 4: Identify potential risks

Things can go wrong even if you have a great plan. In this step, describe the potential risks, obstacles, and delays that you might encounter while implementing your plan. Identifying potential risks and identifying their causes can help you develop strategies for eliminating or reducing the impact of these problems before they happen.

Step 5: Define metrics for measuring outcomes and assessing initiative performance

To track progress and evaluate your initiative’s impact, each outcome needs measurable goals that are achievable, relevant, and aligned with the overall long-term goals. Define the metrics you will use to measure the success of your outputs and to evaluate whether you are on the right path to reaching your goals.

Step 6: Monitor progress

Continuously monitor the progress of your initiative and evaluate its impact. This helps you to identify areas that might need fine-tuning or adjustment. Get feedback from people involved in the initiative so you can make informed decisions and adapt strategies as necessary.

Step 7: Tell a story

Communication is key to helping your stakeholders understand what you are trying to do with your initiative. Write your theory of change in a way that tells a story so stakeholders understand the logic behind your initiative. Explain how the defined inputs and activities lead to the desired outputs to maximize impact.

How can you make sure that your theory of change is well-defined?

Performing a critical evaluation of your theory of change can help you to determine if it’s well-defined. Following are a few indicators that can help you to assess the quality of your theory of change.

  • You have collected relevant data that supports your assumptions and aligns with your goals.
  • Outcomes are clear, specific, measurable, and relevant to what you want to achieve.
  • The theory makes sense and flows in a logical sequence showing clear relationships between activities, outputs, and outcomes.
  • Assumptions and risks are realistic and have data to back them up.
  • Stakeholders were involved in the development of and support your theory of change.
  • Metrics are in place to track progress and impact.

To make your Theory of Change document easier to read and understand, consider including visuals that can support your ideas and the logic of your theory. Use Lucidspark’s virtual whiteboard to brainstorm ideas, perform risk assessment, visualize data, create and communicate timelines, and more.


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About Lucidspark

Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit

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