Skip to content

Theory of Change

What are you looking for?

Theory of Change is an approach that was put forward and promoted by the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, New York, and ActKnowledge, New York. It should be noted that the term “Theory of Change” can be used in another context to mean any kind of results model. Theory of Change is used here to define two things in fact: firstly, a systematic project planning cycle (Theory of Change Process of Method) and, secondly, a specific form of results model (the actual Theory of Change), which is the outcome of this process. The basic idea of this process, taking the project objective and the project goal as its starting points, is to determine which preconditions the project must create in order for the outcome objectives to be achieved. Next, indicators for measuring the preconditions and objectives are set and plans are made for which activities must be undertaken in order to create these preconditions. This is all then presented as a flow chart, or more precisely a result chain. This presentation is the project’s Theory of Change. Like the Logical Framework Approach, the Theory of Change is therefore not per se an impact assessment method, but rather helps projects and their evaluation as part of results-based planning.

Comparison between Theory of Change and Logical Framework Approach

The Theory of Change Method and the Logical Framework Approach share a systematic approach to creating a results model as well as the fact that they both measure success by means of indicators. The Theory of Change Method is distinguished primarily by the fact that the underlying results model is more open; it allows for many intermediate steps and there is no strict linear relation, so the activities can be included at different levels of the model.

Planning process

The process consists of the following five steps:

  1. Identify goals and assumptions
  2. Backwards mapping and connecting outcomes
  3. Developing indicators
  4. Identifying interventions
  5. Writing a narrative

The first step involves drawing up the project objective and the project goals in a participatory process. Particular attention is paid to defining, at the same time, which external assumptions must be fulfilled so that these objectives can be achieved at all. As a second step, through backwards induction, it must be established which interim results (preconditions) must be achieved first, both in time and logically, for the project objectives to be able to follow on. It should be noted that these preconditions should also be effects (changes, conditions, achieved results) and not activities. In this stage too, a close watch should be kept on the underlying assumptions. The result of this process is a results chain (a series of consecutive effects), or more precisely a tree of effects.

As a third step, indicators must be found for all the preconditions and outcomes so that the progress of the project can be constantly checked during the implementation phase and so that eventually a good data basis for an impact assessment is available. The fourth step consists of determining the position in this effects tree at which the project should develop its activities. It is assumed that there will be steps that will take place autonomously and others where the project will need to intervene. The end result of the process is therefore a diagram of an effects tree with the indicators, assumptions and interventions entered in the correct places.

In a fifth and final step, a written explanation is added to the diagram.


The role of Theory of Change’s as a project planning process is primarily to facilitate a dialogue between different stakeholders, to contribute to identifying correct solutions and to clarifying and expressing the project’s objectives and effects in concrete terms, and to enable results-based monitoring and evaluation. Theory of Change is particular suitable for:

  • Planning complex projects and programmes;
  • Recording (on an ongoing basis) the effects of a programme with a close monitoring and evaluation system.

Theory of Change has the ambition to implement a detailed results model and monitoring system and may be costly as a result.


The Theory of Change Method was published in the following User Guide:

This document illustrates the method using a real-life example

This Powerpoint presentation explains the differences between the Theory of Change and the Logic Model:

ActKnowledge operates a Theory of Change website. It also contains an online tool for drawing ToCs: