By now we are all familiar with the term ‘theory of change’—the idea that charities and social enterprises should have a theory behind their work. It’s no surprise then that the past decade has seen a huge increase in the number of organisations using this approach.
It is a tremendous tool for the sector, one that helps guide strategy and evaluation to see an overall improvement in impact. And yet, in the midst of this vogue for theories, are we focusing enough attention on the other side of the coin—the practice of change?
A solid theory will have little impact if not effectively implemented. So how do we put theories into practice? What guidance is there to help us change our organisations as a result of what we have learnt? How can we plan better interventions, and better ways of delivering them?
To answer these questions the Inspiring Impact coalition brought together a working group to discuss our challenges and ambitions in the practice of change. We were a diverse collection of people—representing behemoth to tiny organisations that work across a range of sectors including health, rights, and international development, and engage in activities from direct delivery of services to advocacy and everything in between.
At first glance it would appear our experiences had little in common. However, it soon became apparent that we grappled with the similar issue of how to make our impact strategy work in a very practical sense.
Our different organisations use theory of change in very different ways. London Youth has developed theories of change for each of its individual programmes, as well as having a core theory for the organisation as a whole. Safe Ground develops its planned impact with funders, sometimes before putting a bid in, to make sure it has an open and two-way conversation about the changes it wants to create and how. Citizens Advice has expanded its approach to look at how the organisation’s policy, campaigning activities, volunteer opportunities and education work all create social value, as well as the outcomes of advice itself.
At my organisation, Student Hubs, implementing our theory of change was largely a question of collecting the right data. We are lucky that our theory has been in place more or less since we were founded, seven years ago. However, collecting quantitative and qualitative data consistently across a network of five offices, ten universities, 25,000 students, six programmes and over 100 projects, turns out to be no small feat. And making sure this data collection doesn’t detract from our students’ experiences or tie up our staff in elaborate bureaucratic systems has been one of our biggest challenges.
For us, the practice of change has meant developing a fully automatic system that captures data at every stage of a student’s journey, so we can test which interventions make the greatest difference and track our impact over time and in different locations. Ultimately, we want to be able to better understand the social issue we address—student social action—and knowing how our activities impact it is the first step. You can read more about our experiences, and those of the other working group participants, in the ‘Putting “The Code” into Practice’ report.
The concept of a theory of change has been a revelation for the sector, but now it’s time to focus on the practice of change. To really tackle social issues we need change to happen within our organisations, as well as in society at large.