The word `theory` might seem boring and non-related to charitable work. It is, however, one of the hottest topic there is in the charity sector – and the basis of whatCharity.com charity profile´s ‘our impact’ view. A theory of change could be called “the philosophy you believe in making a difference when it comes to tackling a certain challenge”.
It is a useful tool for understanding the difference that a charity makes or intends to make. Charity work isn’t just about the activities that the charity undertakes, but the meaningful results this activity has. A theory of change helps you to link the two together.
Charities are increasingly using this theory and the process of logical thinking, to help them plan their activities. They start with an idea of a desired change for society, why this is needed, and plan how it will come about. Different charities might approach the same goals through different activities. For example, if a charity wants to improve the health of children they might look at nutrition, family conditions, or activities at schools. They might choose to educate families or lobbying the food industry. Very different approaches, but the same preferable impact. The theory of change always includes a plan how to measure and evaluate what works. It helps charities to learn and do better.
It also help donors and volunteers to understand why things are done as they are and where the resources are spent. Essentially, it’s about understanding how change actually happens, and putting in mechanisms to bring that change about. Sometimes the results can be also negative. This happens when the origins of the challenges are interpreted wrong and those actions estimated to be helpful end up making the situation worse. E.g. some large food or cloth donations have caused those industries to get into trouble as people do not support the local businesses anymore but rely on donated products.
When a charity has thought about their theory of change it shows that they have looked at what they are doing and can prove the difference that it makes on society. Sometimes, things do not work out, but a theory of change gives charities useful information to avoid non-effective methods the next time. As a donor/volunteer, we have to accept that addressing difficult problems, the learning curve is unavoidable. With a well thought plan and validation, the curve can be steeper and time span shorter. We as donors should be more worried about a charity which cannot present their change plan with logic steps than being disappointed at a charity which learned and developed their methods along the way.
whatCharity.com gives all charities an opportunity to present their anticipated social impact through their profile, share impact statements of volunteers and beneficiaries. Check out the number of interesting approaches charities on our site have to address societal, environmental and cultural challenges. Please comment and ask questions, positively challenge the charities you are interested in supporting. Make yourself be part of the change.
A great article in The Guardian about the topic.