Theories of Change – Part 1 Different Theories of Change

Theory or theories of change is a popular buzzword at the moment and it is also confusing as those that use it have different understandings of what it means. This is the first post in a series on theories of change (ToC). I’m going to briefly summarise the different ToCs that I think are important. In future posts in the series, I will go into more detail about some of these.

The linear or methodological model is a specific type of methodology for planning, participation, and evaluation that is used in the philanthropy, not-for-profit and government sectors to promote social change. Theory of Change defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions.[1]

Systems thinking ToC is a combination of two disciplines: evaluation and social action. Evaluation, which aims to clarify the links between project inputs and outcomes. Social action seeks to encourage a group to work collectively towards a shared goal.

Duncan Green’s ‘power and systems approach’ (PSA) combines thought and action, learning and adapting along the way. An initial study means informed guesses can be made on how to start. The important decisions are then made, as we act, observe, and adjust based on what is learned. Green’s PSA “encourages multiple strategies, rather than a single linear approach, and views failure, iteration, and adaptation as expected and necessary, rather than a regrettable lapse. It covers our ways of working – how we think and feel, as well as how we behave as activists.” You can read a summary here or download his book, How Change Happens here.

Several union and social movement practitioners, trainers, groups have identified some ToCs. These include: organising/structure approach – transactional and transformational; mobilising, advocacy; momentum approach; pre-figurative; momentum driven organising; personal transformation; alternative institutions; and dominant institutional reform.

The Ulex course The Ecology of Social Movements: Agency, Theory and Strategy list a wide spectrum of theories of change: influencing elites, points of disruption, exodus and alternatives, cultural change and public attitudes, organising vs mobilising, disrupting hegemony, beyond patriarchy/intersectional approach to power.

Sarah Stachowiak from the Center for Evaluation Innovation has written a report Pathways for Change: 10 Theories to Inform Advocacy and Policy Change Efforts, that lists five global ToCs and five tactic ToCs. As the title of the report states, this is for advocacy and policy change and I haven’t looked at it in detail but it does look useful.

The next post will cover linear, systems thinking and strategy, followed by a post on social movements. At a later date, I plan to write about: social change frameworks; models of social change; establishment theories of change, theory of revolution; and philanthropy.