Your Theory of Change isn't finished until your Grandma can understand it.

What is a theory of change? How should a social impact organization build one? Follow this guide to craft a powerful message. Focus on simplicity & results.

December 31st Articles 6 min read
Nonprofit theory of change guide Website

By Eric Ressler

If you’ve been working for any length of time in the social impact space, you probably already know what a theory of change is. In fact, your organization probably developed (or refreshed) its own theory of change sometime in the last few years.

The real test is this: Could you summarize your organization’s theory of change — right now, no peeking at notes — in a way that your grandparents could easily understand? If the answer is no (if they are more likely to pat you on the back in bewilderment and ask you to pass the popcorn), your organization has work to do.

What is a Theory of Change?

Your theory of change is your social impact organization’s unique fingerprint. It describes exactly what your organization does, why it matters, how you go about doing it, and why your particular approach works. From a marketing standpoint, your theory of change is your organization’s differentiator — what sets you apart from the pack. Even within the same industry or space, no other organization will have the exact same theory of change as you. Because of that, your organization’s theory of change is a powerful tool.

Paring Down Your Theory of Change: Keep it Simple

All too often, social impact organizations treat their theory of change as an internal exercise. There it sits until several years later, when it’s deemed sufficiently out of date and the whole process gets repeated all over again. What these organizations don’t understand is that their theory of change has the potential to be the springboard for their entire communications program. But that will never happen if it's relegated to a Google Drive folder and left to collect dust.

If your theory of change is to be useful outside of strategic planning meetings, it must be simple enough that anyone can understand it. And therein lies the second problem. Many organizations’ theories of change are incredibly complex — to the point that they are essentially inscrutable to all but the organizations’ own staffers.

Now, it’s possible that your organization may genuinely need a more complex version of its theory of change. You know, the one that’s ten pages long and filled with flow charts. If you’re engaged in especially complex issues at the systems level, that really may be what it takes to describe your theory of change in the highest level of detail. But you shouldn’t stop there. You must simplify it and simplify it again until it’s something that grandma (or your next door neighbor) could easily understand.

Think of it this way: Publishing the complex version of your theory of change is a little like publishing the electronic schematics of a laptop when what your customers really need is a features-and-benefits page. Those schematics would be helpful for an electrical engineer, but they wouldn’t make any sense to the consumer. A consumer doesn’t care about every little detail of what’s happening under the hood. She just wants to know that the laptop is fast and the screen resolution is high. You might need to start with a version of your theory of change that is akin to those schematics. Think of it as the "blueprint" version, reflecting the nuts and bolts complexity of what your organization does. But you also need to have a second version that sells the laptop. Your theory of change isn’t complete until you’ve arrived at that second version.

Checklist

Remember, if the average person who cares about your issue can’t understand how your organization makes a difference and why it matters, they are never going to support you. This is critical if your organization strives to enlist behavioral change (as in the case of an organization that works to reduce individuals’ carbon footprints). It's equally necessary if you rely on individual donations from the general public. A simplified theory of change also gives funders a clearer picture of what your organization does (and whether your organization is a good fit). A plainspoken, streamlined theory of change may even help others in your own industry understand your organization better.

Finally, if you can’t simplify your theory of change, consider that it might mean your own team doesn’t fully understand it, either. When you pare down your theory of change, it should be part of an effort to ensure that each member of your team can confidently communicate the value of your organization’s work. Put another way, if your staff struggles to explain what they do when they go home for the holidays, you know it’s time to rethink your theory of change. And you aren't done until you can explain it and get something more than a blank stare.

How to Simplify Your Theory of Change

Ready to work on simplifying your theory of change? Start here:

  • Tell a compelling story. When it comes to simplifying your theory of change, it may help to think in terms of storytelling. It’s a process of distilling your scientific, insider-speak, metrics-based, systems-thinking theory into a simple, emotional, human-based story. Every time you think you’ve simplified your theory of change enough, ask yourself: Does it tell a compelling story that a non-expert could understand? If the answer is no, keep digging.
  • Make sure it passes the "so what?" test. Your theory of change should get at the heart of why you do what you do. The “so what” test is a way of verifying that your theory of change anticipates and answers the question “so what?” until it can’t be asked any more. For example, let’s say your simplified theory of change is, “We use cutting-edge conservation technologies to promote the health of the local beaver population.” The next question might naturally be “so what?” Why does the local beaver population matter? Why is it so important to preserve them? In this example, you could get closer to passing the “so what?” test by rephrasing the theory of change to say something like: “We use cutting-edge conservation technologies to promote the health of the local beaver population, which is a keystone species. Beavers are crucial to the health and stability of the larger river ecosystem.” When all is said and done, your theory of change should quickly convey to your audience that your organization does X because of Y to achieve Z.
  • Communicate your theory of change in an engaging way. Whether your simplified theory of change is a written paragraph or a flow chart, you should tell it in an engaging manner. Make sure to be consistent with your brand. Your theory of change doesn’t have to be dry and serious in order to be effective. A great example of this can be found in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s theory of change. The MAH’s theory of change is reduced to a powerfully simple, easily understood form. But they went one step further and produced the theory of change in the form of a hand-drawn comic. It’s a perfect reflection of the MAH’s creative, casual, out-of-the-box brand. Of course, a comic strip won’t be appropriate for most social impact organizations. But the lesson applies. The way you present your theory of change can and should reflect your organization’s brand and personality.

When you simplify your theory of change, it becomes much more powerful than the academic, complicated version that preceded it. It unlocks more communications and storytelling potential. And in doing so, it further connects your theory of change to end-results impact. So get started simplifying your theory of change. And don’t stop until grandma is satisfied.

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