Theory of Change

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A theory of change is a detailed description of the mechanisms through which a change is expected to occur in a particular situation. A theory of change identifies the goals, preconditions, requirements, assumptions, interventions, and indicators of a program, providing important insight into and guidance on intervention and impact evaluation design.

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  • A theory of change is best completed in the planning stages of an impact evaluation, as it can play a critical role in guiding intervention design, data collection, analysis and reporting.

Building the Theory of Change

According to the Theory of Change website, a theory of change is built in six steps. First, identify long-term goals. Second, backwards map and connect the preconditions and requirements necessary to achieve the goals; explain why these preconditions are necessary and sufficient. Third, identify your basic assumptions about the context. Fourth, identify the interventions that will create your desired change. Fifth, develop indicators to measure outcomes. Finally, write a narrative to explain the logic of the interventions.

Poverty Action Lab identifies seven similar steps to building a theory of change: 1) analyze the situation, 2) clarify the program goal, 3) design the program/product, 4) map the causal pathway, 5) identify explicit assumptions, 6) design specific, measurable, achievable, reliable and time-bound indicators, and 7) convert to logical framework.


The theory of change uses backwards mapping to create a set of connected outcomes known as the “pathway of change”. The “pathway of change” graphically represents the change process and acts as the skeleton around which the other elements of the theory are developed. The “pathway of change” typically follows the following structure:

If [inputs] and [activities] produce [outputs] this should lead to [outcomes] which will ultimately contribute to [goal].

A theory of change empowers organizations and initiatives to achieve, measure and show their impact. It provides evaluators with a framework on which they can base hypotheses, evaluation questions, and outcomes of interest. It also identifies key indicators, guiding evaluators towards the “what” and “when” of evaluation and strengthening monitoring systems overall.

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This article is part of the topic Experimental Methods

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