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September 13, 2022

Why Your Organization May Need A Theory of Change

By Samuel Escalante, PhD

Many nonprofits use models for programming that align with their stated mission. Often, however, we see that while organizations may be able to measure outcomes based on their mission, there are often unforeseen consequences that may make achieving the necessary change to achieve their mission more challenging in the long run. 

Common Challenges When You Do Not Have A Theory of Change

For example, we may see that the communities being served lack “buy-in,” and we may fail to mitigate against factors beyond the scope of the mission. Or we may simply be putting resources in places that may not be the most effective for achieving our mission. 

To put it simply, while our mission helps guide the “what” and the “how” of what we do, we must also interrogate the “why” of our work and our actions. Exploring the “why” is the work of developing a theory of change.

The “Why” Behind Your Mission

A theory of change is a theoretical framework that interrogates and describes both relationships and processes for producing social change. A theory of change is not a new concept; organizations have long used this methodology to develop processes for change and identify how success is realized for various projects, programs, or missions. 

A theory of change can take on many different forms depending on the context of the problem, the type of organization, and the scope of the change being sought. Most often, theories of change interrogate a problem, describe a vision, and include various ways to identify successful change toward achieving that vision, such as goals, strategies, and methods for evaluation. 

For example, Blue Meridian Partners (BMP) sought to make investments that would shift and build power for communities being served through their place-based partnerships. As a new philanthropic organization, BMP’s work focuses on finding and funding scalable solutions to the problems that limit economic and social mobility for America’s young people and families in poverty. 

Through collaboration with the client, Converge identified that it wasn’t enough to identify where to invest, and therefore developed a comprehensive Theory of Change for understanding HOW shifting and building power happens across place-based partnerships so that those investments are effective.

Centering Equity in the Framework Development

At Converge, we take developing a theory of change further and apply a Racial and Intersectional Equity (R.I.S.E.©) approach. While any given theory of change can vary widely from another, at Converge we believe that an effective theory of change should incorporate these three key components:

  • Historical grounding: Social change is complex and understanding the roots of a problem demands a robust understanding of the historical contexts and events that lead to the social context in which we find ourselves today.
  • Radical imagining: At Converge we firmly believe we are the freedom dreams of our ancestors and the architects of a future for the coming generations. Transformation and justice require that we see the world not as it is, but as it should be.
  • Ground-truthing: A theory of change is not effective if it does not reflect the lived experiences and realities of those an organization aims to serve. At Converge, we center the voices of the historically marginalized and “ground-truth” our theories of change by consulting with those whose lived experiences matter most for realizing the change we wish to see.

At Converge, we take a rigorous approach to developing any theory of change. Through iterative analysis, we work closely and collaboratively with our clients, key stakeholders, and external experts to develop a theory of change that will set a firm foundation for equitable and just action to follow.

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