Initiatives with ambitious goals are complicated and can be difficult to evaluate. These initiatives usually include several types of programs that occur simultaneously. Developing a theory of change in these situations is very beneficial to program staff and evaluation, and it enhances the quality and accountability of the initiatives.
A theory of change is defined as “a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why the desired change is expected to happen in a particular context…by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur,” by theoryofchange.org.
Wendy DuBow and Elizabeth Litzler collaborated to create and implement a theory of change for The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a nonprofit organization with a mission to drastically increase the meaningful participation of women in technology.
NCWIT brings together start-ups and corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to make the organizational and social changes that will enable movement forward on this problem. Their goal when creating a theory of change was to address a central shortcoming of theory-driven approaches, which tend to not go beyond program staff conceptions of how their program works.
DuBow and Litlzer spent years collaborating and making revisions to the theory before NCWIT’s leadership finally adopted it. However, once they did, they asked the duo to create a theory of change for all of their complex programs. The theory of change that they developed served as a way for NCWIT to promote all that they had done as well as their future plans. Additionally, the theory of change allowed NCWIT to tell a coherent story to funders and stakeholders.
Even after an organization has been operating for years, developing a well-executed theory of change can be a clarifying and useful exercise. Internally, it provides a complex initiative with an organizing principle and lays the groundwork for future activities. It also improves evaluators’ abilities to measure the metrics appropriate to determining an organization’s success and impact.
DuBow, Wendy M., & Litzler E. (2018). The Development and Use of a Theory of Change to Align Programs and Evaluation in a Complex, National Initiative. American Journal of Evaluation, vol. 40(2), 231-248. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098214018778132