Theory for Change

A theory for (of) change is a description or explanation of potential solutions for complex social problems that explains how change can happen to meet a long-term goal.

Defining a Theory for Change

A theory of change is a description or explanation of solutions for complex social problems that explains how early and intermediate accomplishments can help lead to an identified long-term goal.

A theory of change usually begins as your core hypothesis for what needs to change, in order for the system you are working to change for the better. This means that you need to continuously test, adjust and validate your hypothesis before you can call it a ‘theory’. It’s also a living theory, which means you must keep adjusting it.

A theory of change clearly articulates the ultimate and penultimate goals, the preconditions that must be achieved in order to reach those goals, and the actions to achieve those conditions.

By working with your team to identify your theory of change, as a lab or innovation unit, you will be able to develop a more comprehensive picture of the (early and mid-term) changes that will be brought about in order to reach your identified long-term goal.

Some words of warning:

  • It is a theory. You will ALWAYS need to adapt

  • It does not have to be perfect (in fact, better that it's not). It's better to have a rough sense than create too detailed a blueprint

  • Since the purpose is to guide action, a more appropriate wording is: theory for change, or better yet, hypothesis for change (See Geoff Mulgan's article about framing here: What's Wrong with Theories of Change? ).

Examples and Resources

Activity: Building your Theory for Change

1) Prep - On a large sheet of paper, draw three rows: Impact, Outputs, Inputs - Gather your lab team

2) Brainstorm First, individually, describe the desired impact of your lab on one sticky note. Describe in one sentence the ultimate impact you hope to achieve. Try be concise, specific and measurable.

Examples: - In 2025, youth employment in Canada will be double what it is today. - All hospitals in Ontario will procure new technologies faster and more efficiently by 2022.

3) Individual brainstorm Describe possible results or preconditions of activities that are needed to achieve that impact. Describe 1 output per sticky note. You can think of the three categories we discussed like solutions you have helped develop, policies that are changed, capacity that has been built.

4) Individual brainstorm Describe the inputs you think are needed to help develop these activities. Describe 1 input per sticky note. This could be resources (time, money, people) or partners /stakeholders you need to make change happen.

5) Mapping & Team Discussion Map all your sticky notes on worksheet/flip chart and discuss with your team.

The Center for Theory of Change has a web-based software to help develop your theory for change. It is available here:

Theory Maker is a free web-based application that can help you make causal diagrams, such as a theory for change. It is available here:

Nesta’s DIY Toolkit also provides both a template and a video tutorial that helps walk you through how to use a theory for change:

Additional Resources

Taplin, D. & Clark, H. (2012). Theory of Change Basics: A Primer on Theory of Change. ActKnowledge Theory to Results.