A Theory of Change (ToC) isn’t just a statement about the approach you will take to achieve your organization’s ultimate goals; it’s a vehicle for driving systemic change as it describes how you’re going to get it done. It’s the fuel for focusing your organization’s programming and an accelerator for an enduring fundraising strategy.
As fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, you need an edge. Here are three ways you can use your Theory of Change to sharpen your strategy. But first, let’s get clear on what a Theory of Change looks like.
Theory of Change 101: The Statement Between Mission and Vision
Your organization’s mission outlines what change you are aiming to make a reality in the world. Your vision is the ultimate, ideal outcome. So, what goes in the middle? How do you get from Point M (Mission) to Point V (Vision)? Your Theory of Change, or what we like to call “The Messy Middle.” Its main purpose is to describe the logical chain of how your nonprofit’s actions lead to solutions, and allows you to articulate the “how” behind your “why,” demonstrating to funders that you are intentional in your strategy.
To craft your Theory of Change, start with your problem statement. This statement represents the need you are addressing and describes the state of the world you want to change. In our example, let’s say that our starting condition is that families can’t afford food in our community, because food and living costs are too high. Your vision is to see a world where no child goes hungry. Depending on your work, there could be multiple results, or multiple layers of results (sometimes called outputs, outcomes, and impact.)
Here’s where the ToC comes into play: how you create change. It represents the causal mechanism that allows you to shift from your starting condition (families can’t afford food because food costs are too high) to your result (no one going hungry).
Let’s think about how you can get from Point M to Point V. Do you provide free, nutritious food directly to families experiencing hunger? Do you work with legislators to create local programs to help families in need? Whatever route you choose, that’s your Theory of Change. It could be as simple as, “We operate a food pantry, providing fresh, healthy groceries to families in need,” or as complex as, “We are creating a network of advocates, health care providers, and activists who are working to protect reproductive freedom on multiple fronts.”
A well-defined ToC is invaluable for demonstrating how your organization will create meaningful impact. By clearly mapping the logical connections between actions and outcomes, you equip funders and partners to envision the road ahead.
Got the basics down? Great! Let’s move on to how a ToC powers your organization’s performance.
A Theory of Change Tracks Outcomes From Ideas to Action
When you have clarity on your nonprofit’s goals and strategies, you are much more likely to achieve them. One thing that makes all that easier? Determining metrics that accurately reflect your progress so you know where you can improve and where you can show off what your hard work has accomplished.
Think of your ToC like your evaluation backbone — a guiding rubric to measure your programs’ progress as you relentlessly pursue your goals and show your proof of impact.
By articulating how you will create change in your ToC you can build an evaluation framework to collect the right data — data will reveal what is working well, what can be improved, and why your approach is worth supporting.
Let’s take a look at our fighting hunger in your community example from before. You can track metrics that capture quantifiable activities, like the number of meals provided at school, how many children are fed, and the number of parents given educational materials.
These tangible, easy-to-count metrics are important, but the ultimate goal is achieving your broader vision, like ending hunger. In this case, a ToC guides how you demonstrate long-term impact. For example, you could track public data on childhood hunger rates over time, focusing on the zip codes where your programs operate. Though it won’t happen overnight, you may eventually see a measurable decrease that correlates with your work in those areas. With data, time, and persistence, you can bridge your short-term outputs to long-term outcomes.
Not only does tracking your metrics increase your programs’ effectiveness by focusing your efforts on meaningful tactics, but it also helps strengthen your grant proposals by demonstrating change in action. Ongoing measurement shows your ToC is more than hypothetical; it’s a roadmap for real, measurable impact.
A Theory Of Change Connects You to Specific Types of Revenue or Funders
Just as a ToC can shepherd your proof of impact, it can also guide you to focus your funding strategy to attract donors who are the best fit to support your organization. Not only does this maximize your time in building relationships with the right people, it also helps your organization stand out in an overwhelming wave of grant proposals by being specific about how you plan to achieve your goals.
Let’s take our earlier example one step further. Say your organization aims to end child hunger in the US. There are many possible approaches to tackling the issue, but your organization focuses on providing food directly through schools. Your ToC states that providing reliable access to food at school decreases child hunger.
Your food-at-school approach would attract funders interested specifically in tackling food insecurity through schools. Now, another organization could have the same mission and vision but use a different ToC, such as operating community food pantries for families. That organization would appeal to an entirely different set of funders more focused on tackling hunger specifically by providing healthy options for entire families through community-driven efforts.
See the difference? There are two ToCs that differentiate each organization. The distinct approaches attract different funders. Yet, it also shows that you fit into the broader ecosystem of nonprofits working on the issue. You’re not competing with anyone — you are filling a critical gap.
Overall, a compelling Theory of Change allows you to stand out while demonstrating how you’re different. It’s a valuable tool for positioning your organization in a crowded space while remaining focused on the end goal.
A Theory of Change Strengthens Your Organization’s Strategic Plan
Typically, strategic planning begins with revisiting the mission. But for an effective strategy, you should focus on the less static Theory of Change instead. In a shifting landscape, your mission and vision endures, while strategies to get from Point M to Point V must adapt.
Therefore, it’s not productive to look back and ask, “What’s our mission?” Instead, it’s much more effective to chart your strategic plan by looking at your Theory of Change and evaluating:
- What about our approach has been successful?
- How can we be more efficient to affect more change?
- Are we making change happen in meaningful ways that are going to move the needle at this moment and with this specific set of circumstances?
Your strategic plan charts the course that aligns fundraising and programs to your North Star. It focuses your staff, your board, and your donors and aligns everyone under one approach. Without that guidance, everything strays off course, misguiding your efforts and providing distraction rather than direction.
Crafting a rock-solid Theory of Change will likely take some time to get right, so be patient. Once you’ve nailed it down, you’ll notice how it brings everything into focus, sparking new ideas and galvanizing your fundraising efforts along the way.