Theory of Change

… a core concept used in Evaluation and Performance Measurement and Atlas108

Click for Center for TOC website

Concept description

The Center for Theory of Change (reference below, website right) describes theory of change as “a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context.”

The Center goes on to say:

“[Theory of Change] 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. It does this 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. These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework.

“The Outcomes Framework then provides the basis for identifying what type of activity or intervention will lead to the outcomes identified as preconditions for achieving the long-term goal. Through this approach the precise link between activities and the achievement of the long-term goals are more fully understood. This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change actually happens. It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to measure progress towards the achievement of longer-term goals that goes beyond the identification of program outputs.”

How does Theory of Change (TOC) Work?

The Center for Theory of Change states that:

“TOC maps out your initiative through 6 stages:

  1. Identifying long-term goals
  2. Backwards mapping and connecting the preconditions or requirements necessary to achieve that goal and explaining why these preconditions are necessary and sufficient
  3. Identifying your basic assumptions about the context
  4. Identifying the interventions that your initiative will perform to create your desired change
  5. Developing indicators to measure your outcomes to assess the performance of your initiative
  6. Writing a narrative to explain the logic of your initiative.

“The TOC process hinges upon defining all of the necessary and sufficient conditions required to bring about a given long term outcome. TOC uses backwards mapping requiring planners to think in backwards steps from the long-term goal to the intermediate and then early-term changes that would be required to cause the desired change. This creates a set of connected outcomes known as a “pathway of change”. A “pathway of change” graphically represents the change process as it is understood by the initiative planners and is the skeleton around which the other elements of the theory are developed.

“During the process of creating the pathway of change, participants are required to articulate as many of their assumptions about the change process as they can so that they can be examined and even tested to determine if any key assumptions are hard to support (or even false). There are typically three important types of assumptions to consider: (a) assertions about the connections between long term, intermediate and early outcomes on the map; (b) substantiation for the claim that all of the important preconditions for success have been identified; and (c) justifications supporting the links between program activities and the outcomes they are expected to produce. A fourth type of assumption which outlines the contextual or environmental factors that will support or hinder progress toward the realization of outcomes in the pathway of change is often an additional important factor in illustrating the complete theory of change.

“TOC approach to planning is designed to encourage very clearly defined outcomes at every step of the change process. Users are required to specify a number of details about the nature of the desired change – including specifics about the target population, the amount of change required to signal success, and the timeframe over which such change is expected to occur. This attention to detail often helps both funders and grantees reassess the feasibility of reaching goals that may have initially been vaguely defined, and in the end, promotes the development of reasonable long-term outcome targets that are acceptable to all parties.”

Relation to other subjects and concepts on the Atlas

Developing a theory of change for a particular program or initiative can usefully draw on concepts described in the Atlas, including those set out below under their Atlas subjects:

Leadership Skills

Determining the Nature of the Leadership Challenge

Framing the Problem

Identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT)

Identifying Allies

Creating a Coalition

VMOSA – Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategies, and Action Plans

Developing Mission and Vision Statements

Creating Smart Objectives

Developing Successful Strategies

Developing an Action Plan

Countering Opposition

Practicing Integrative Thinking

Recognizing Obliquity

Implementation and Delivery

Change Management

Bardach’s Step One – Define the Problem

Bardach’s Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving

Allison’s Three Models of Government Action


Leonard’s Note on Public Sector Strategy-Building

Kennedy School’s Value-Capacity-Support Model

Public Value Account

Public Value Scorecard

Moore’s Legitimacy and Support Perspective

Moore’s Operational Capacity Perspective

Management Improvement Methodologies – TQM, Six Sigma, and Lean

Gartner Hype Cycle

Social Tools and Organizational Performance

Making Your Story Sticky with S.U.C.C.E.S.

Risk Assessment

Risk Mapping

Evaluation and Performance Measurement

Klitgaard’s Policy Analysis and Evaluation Version 2.0

Contrasting Purposes of Evaluation

Logic Models

Categories of Program Evaluation

Performance Measurement

Performance Reporting

Attribution Problem

Confirmation Bias


See also:

Using the Atlas to Formulate Questions for Program Review


Wikipedia (reference below) has an excellent entry on Theory of Change which includes:

“Theory of Change emerged from the field of program theory and program evaluation in the mid 1990s as a new way of analyzing the theories motivating programs and initiatives working for social and political change. … Theory of Change as a concept has strong roots in a number of disciplines, including environmental and organizational psychology, but has also increasingly been connected to sociology and political science … Theory of Change emerged in the 1990s at the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change as a means to model and evaluate comprehensive community initiatives. Notable methodologists, such as Huey Chen, Peter Rossi, Michael Quinn Patton, Heléne Clark, and Carol Weiss, had been thinking about how to apply program theories to evaluation since 1980. The Roundtable’s early work focused on working through the challenges of evaluating complex community initiatives. This work culminated in a 1995 publication, ‘New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives’. In that book, Carol Weiss, a member of the Roundtable’s steering committee on evaluation, hypothesized that a key reason complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. She argued that stakeholders of complex community initiatives typically are unclear about how the change process will unfold and therefore place little attention on the early and mid-term changes needed to reach a longer term goal.

“Weiss popularized the term “Theory of Change” as a way to describe the set of assumptions that explain both the mini-steps that lead to the long-term goal of interest and the connections between program activities and outcomes that occur at each step of the way. She challenged designers of complex community-based initiatives to be specific about the theories of change guiding their work and suggested that doing so would improve their overall evaluation plans and would strengthen their ability to claim credit for outcomes that were predicted in their theory. She called for the use of an approach that, at first glance, seems like common sense: lay out the sequence of outcomes that are expected to occur as the result of an intervention, and plan an evaluation strategy around tracking whether these expected outcomes are actually produced. Her stature in the field, and the apparent promise of this idea, motivated a number of foundations to support the use of this technique – later termed “the Theory of Change approach” – in the evaluations of community change initiatives. …

“Between 2000 – 2002, the Aspen Roundtable for Community Change led the dissemination and case studies of the Theory of Change approach, although still mostly applied to the field of community initiatives. … The visibility and knowledge of Theory of Change grew with the creation in 2002 of and later of Theory of Change Online software. … The explosion of knowledge of the term, and demand for “theories”, led to the formation in 2013 of the first non-profit dedicated to promoting and clarifying standards for Theory of Change. The Center for Theory of Change houses a library, definitions, glossary and is licensed to offer Theory of Change Online by ActKnowledge free of charge.”


The Center for Theory of Change provides free web-based software, called TOCO 2.0 at as well as a library of pdf documents at These include:

Dana Taplin and Heléne Clark (2012), Theory of Change Basics – A Primer on Theory of Change, ActKnowledge, New York, at, accessed 26 September 2019.

Andrea A. Anderson, The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change, The Aspen Institute, New York, at, accessed 26 September 2019.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Evaluation and Performance Measurement (core topic) in Evaluation and Performance Measurement and Atlas108 Analytic Methods and Evaluation.


Center for Theory of Change (2019), What is Theory of Change, at, accessed 26 September 2019.

Center for Theory of Change (2019), How Does Theory of Change Work?, at, accessed 26 September 2019.

Wikipedia, Theory of change, at, accessed 26 September 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 26 September 2019.

Image: Center for Theory of Change, at, accessed 26 September 2019.