BLOG     18 | 03 | 2020

To ToC or not to ToC?

What is Theory of Change and why is it a useful, yet imperfect, approach for making change real

India, West Bengali. It is a sunny morning and a brand-new project is about to start: it is a capacity building initiative that aims at training judges, social workers, paralegals, lawyers and NGOs on human trafficking rules, laws and regulations. Everything is ready: the classroom is equipped, there are pens, notebooks and background materials on the desk. There is coffee, tea and water, and a bunch of flowers on the welcoming desk. Some local authorities have been invited and should attend the training’s kick-off.

But when the time came, none of the trainees showed up… Wrong venue? Wrong date? Wrong timing?

No. Simply, lack of a strong Theory of Change (ToC): the zealous and dedicated project designers and managers developed an initiative, without carrying out a proper ToC, not considering all the risks and assumptions and not involving proper stakeholders in the project design phase. Working with an activity-based perspective, instead of a result-oriented vision in an open context, they overlooked a small, insignificant and crucial detail: India has a caste system still deeply enrooted and it would have been impossible for trainees, belonging to different castes, to sit in the same class. Promptly, thanks to a risk management strategy and a flexible way of responding, the training calendar was revisited, the classes were reorganized, and the project had a positive result and a “happy ending”.

But, wait, what is a Theory of Change?

The Theory of Change approach was popularized in the 90’s as a methodology applied to development interventions, but its application has been increasingly spread to other areas, becoming more structured, also thanks to several studies and to the work of experts.

A good definition is provided by the site:

A Theory of Change is essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does – its activities or interventions – and how these lead to desired goals being achieved”1.

In other words, using the definition of USAID, a Theory of Change, might be expressed as, “If we do X, Y and Z, it will lead to W”2.

A ToC is a participative approach that helps to identify a causal pathway and to define the rationale behind an intervention.

It allows reasoning on the most important, yet often misunderstood, aspect of a social intervention: the difference between implementing an activity and bringing about a change.

The process to build a ToC starts by identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify the outcomes, and how they are related to one other causally, for the goals to be achieved. Then, the process continues, mapping out the outputs that must be put in place to contribute to the outcomes, and the activities to be implemented, to allow the outputs to be realized. In building up the result chain, there is the need to conduct a proper assessment of the context, along with a detailed analysis of potential risks, that may occur and a strategy to face them, if needs be; taking into consideration also the assumptions, meaning the conditions that must be in place to allow the project to be implemented in a proper and timely manner. Exactly what the project designers skipped in the above mentioned case in West Bengali.

How could a ToC be useful for MULTI-ACT Model appliers?

According to MULTI-ACT Model, appliers should define a common agenda involving relevant stakeholders, identifying and tackling their intended issue with a unifying long-term approach and a clearly defined set of objectives and actions necessary to pursue their long-term goals.

The ToC methodology answer very well to this need and could represent a useful tool not only to clarify the objectives and the agenda of a given initiative, but also to monitor and manage the activities carried out, ensuring their coherence with the long-term goals. Therefore, a ToC could be seen as a dynamic tool that requires appliers to have a strong flexibility both in developing and revising their approach.

This is particularly true for the initiatives that will profit of MULTI-ACT Model, which will be required to develop a comprehensive description of how and why their desired change is expected to happen. A very difficult task to perform considering the nature of health research and the need of engaging stakeholders in the research process. For this reason, it is extremely important to trigger a deep reflection on the process that move from desired long-term goals to outcomes, outputs and activities, and on the control or influence that the initiative might have on the attended results.

One of the purpose of MULTI-ACT is to offer a comprehensive methodology to appliers of the Model, which could help them both in the definition of their objectives and throughout the development of their initiative.

This blog was written by: Sabrina Liberalato, Edoardo Sangiovanni, Corrado Paternò Castello, Luca Molinari, Andrea Gavazzi, Ilaria Giuseppina Neirotti