I’ve been following a discussion on Theories of Change that has been taking place recently on an email forum I belong to.  There are both supporters and detractors of Theories of Change and the same pro- and anti-arguments have been wheeled out, with everyone agreeing that they use Theories of Change whether they like them or not.

However few people in the discussion are actually talking about whether we would be better off not using Theories of Change at all.

Now at this stage I should probably declare that I have used Theories of Change, I have designed and helped other to design Theories of Change and I have evaluated performance against Theories of Change.  While I will probably always have clients that use and want me to assess their performance against Theories of Change (and I will), I will never personally use one again.

Here are my top reasons why:

  • Theories of Change are about organisations, not people: they are always designed and written from the organisation’s perspective, not the beneficiaries’ perspective. They tell how and what organisations will do to achieve a certain project or programme goal that may or may not drive the organisation towards its overall aim.  They regularly do not take into account the priorities and needs of the communities in which the projects will be running.  While all project should be flexible in the their implementation in order to take account of the changing needs of beneficiaries, rarely (if ever) are Theories of Change altered to reflect the priorities or change priorities of beneficiaries or communities once the project starts;
  • Theories of Change help donors, not organisations: a Theory of Change makes it easy for a donor to understand a complicated organisation that it wants to fund or work with.  It helps the donor to label or categorise the organisation and the project easily and provides a mechanism for holding the organisation to account.  Organisations design activities and inputs to serve the Theory of Change even if it turns out to be mistaken in its assumptions, which can draw vital resources away from the overall aim or goal of the organisation; and
  • Theories of Change hardly ever play out in reality: Theories of Change are underpinned by assumptions that may or may not (often not) have been researched beforehand to understand how important they are to the theory’s success.  Recently I evaluated a project where there had been high staff turnover and the team working on the project at the end did not know all of the assumptions linked to the Theory of Change.  That meant that one very important assumption had not been tracked across the project and the end goal could not be reached, no matter what the project did.  To be fair to the team the fault lay in the design, not the implementation of the project, which underlines the point: the Theory of Change looked good on paper, but not in reality.

It is a personal frustration of mine when I see the ‘Do Development Differently’ set say they want to change the way the sector works, but still stick to Theories of Change as a core model.  There’s nothing different, or better, in that.

Okay, I hear you ask, what should we do instead?Framework Image

  1. Develop a framework that sets out why the organisation exists, who it works with and what it does with or for the people and partners it works with: this framework doesn’t tell you what activities you will do to achieve a particular project aim, it doesn’t tell you what you what assumptions you think you hold about a certain area of your work.  Instead it tells you broadly why the organisation exists and what its USP is.  Nothing more;
  2. Use Matrix Management and Agile project management to structure your organisation to deliver the “what” for the “who” in your framework: make sure the right people with the right skills (skills, not qualifications) are in the right jobs.  Make sure all projects have flexible and dynamic teams that grow or change according to project needs.  Make sure that internal and team communication is powerful and pervasive; and
  3. Constantly ask your target beneficiaries what works for them and what their priorities are: this is not just a consultation exercise during design phase or regular reporting to community leaders, this is constant testing of services and products with focus groups and using their feedback to improve the service or product in real time.

And one more thing: never develop or use a three-year or a five-year plan.  Never.  Developing capable, resilient, healthy, well-educated, equal societies takes much longer than five years and no amount of talk or spin is going to change that.  A good set of annually reviewed key performance indicators across all your work will help to determine your priorities from year to year.  Organisations have to be flexible and resilient themselves to take advantage of the opportunities and to weather the storms of the development world, without being shackled to a plan that is out of date the moment it is published.  This means you probably wouldn’t use log frames either – but that is possibly a topic for another blog entry.

Of course you might counter this with the argument that donors need Theories of Change (and log frames) before they will fund you.  Well, some do, but the smart ones don’t and it is possible to change the conversations we have with donors.  All donors are open to discussions about how to do development better.

What do you think about Theories of Change, what are your experiences of them and why do you think they have been so popular?  Would you ever leave them behind?

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