What is a Theory of Change?

To develop your project, it is important to have a shared understanding of the changes and impacts you hope to see from the work your project does.

Theory of Change is the process by which this change happens, or the ‘map, describing how to get from A to B.’ The theory of change is a useful tool to be used once you have established your project idea and you understand the needs for that project, which can be identified through a community needs assessment or market research.  A theory of change can help identify our long-term purposes and provides a framework for a partnership or organisation to agree those collectively. It helps to identify the objectives a project needs to achieve and also provides a framework to plan how to monitor and evaluate a project.

It is useful for:

  • Internal project development – it helps refine and enhance the effectiveness of your project.
  • External communication – to tell people what your project/organisation does, and how it has an impact in a clear and convincing way. This is useful when applying for funding grants or investment.
  • Evaluation – it’s the first step in designing effective evaluation tools as it identifies all your outcomes that need to be measured.
  • Developing a new project -
    • Distinguishing the income generation outcome from the social outputs of a social enterprise
    • Understanding the steps that are missing
    • Explaining and justifying why you're doing what you're doing
    • Tackling a social issue which is complex and has multiple causes


Theory of Change is a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. 

  • It is focused on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. 
  • It does this by first identifying the problem, and the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions (outcomes) that must be in place, and how these related to one another causally, for the goals to occur. 
  • These are all mapped out in an Outcomes Framework. See the example below based on a mobile greengrocer delivering fresh fruit and vegetables, which explains what to include in each section of the ToC.

A Theory of Change generally includes the following sections, which are explained using the example of a mobile greengrocer such as Queen of Greens:

The problem: What is the problem you are trying to address?

E.g. Area x has high levels of deprivation and limited places to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as a low uptake of Healthy Start. This is contributing to health inequality.

The desired state: How would things look differently in an ideal world? What do you see as an end point?

E.g. People can easily access plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables locally and meet their nutritional requirements. People living in area X have good health and wellbeing and there is no health inequality.

Outcomes: What changes will happen to achieve the desired state?

E.g. Uptake of Healthy Start increases above 80%, fruit and vegetable intake increases, wellbeing markers increase.

Outputs: What is done to lead to these changes?

E.g. The mobile grocer stops in 5 locations in area x each week, Healthy Start training is delivered to x number of organisations, X number of families access the mobile grocer each week etc.

Activities: What will the project do to produce these outputs and lead to the planned outcomes?

E.g. Healthy Start leaflets and recipes are distributed, training is delivered to local organisations, the mobile grocer route mapped with input from community and local organisations, social media promotion, households can input feedback.

Assumptions: What are you assuming to be true for the above to happen?

E.g. if fruit and vegetables are more accessible to people they will eat them, people would accept getting fruit and veg from a mobile grocer rather than a conventional shop, people will spend their Healthy Start at the mobile grocers.

More about the Theory of Change framework (download the template framework)

  • The Theory of Change Framework provides the basis for identifying what type of activity or intervention will lead to the outcomes identified as preconditions for achieving the long-term goal.
  • Through this approach the precise link between activities and the achievement of long-term goals are more fully understood.
  • This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change will actually happen.
  • It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to measure progress towards the achievement of longer-term goals that goes beyond the identification of program outputs. This improves communications with partners and funders.
  • Theory of Change should be frequently revisited and reviewed as you learn more about your project, and activities and goals may change. Make the time to iterate and review.

How to develop a Theory of Change framework for your project or organisation

The following steps describe how to develop a Theory of Change with your organisation:

  • Bring together people involved in your project or organisation, ideally in person, to work on the Theory of Change together. The Theory of Change should be developed in a group to capture input from relevant stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and any partners – facilitate the creative process e.g. World Café, community needs assessment (see Defining the Need section)
  • Identify your project aims/goal – e.g. providing emergency food aid or tackling poverty (Documents 1& 2)
  • Collect evidence of need and context (see Defining the Need section)
  • Agree your intended impact
  • Identify your outcomes (these can be short, medium, and long-term) – how are they measurable?
  • Identify outputs and activities (this will help identify the Products, Services and Operations section)
  • Identify causal links – arrows that show which activities lead to which outcomes, and which outcomes lead to which goal
  • Clarify your assumptions – these underpin each causal link
  • Establish a timeline and plan resources
  • Produce your framework and narrative for external and internal use
  • Get ready to use your theory of change

Download our Theory of Change template
Download our Theory of Changes training presentation.

Further reading

Understanding the importance of evidence-based approaches (assumptions in your theory of change)

An evidence-based practice is about using the best available evidence from multiple sources to optimise decisions. Being evidence-based is about prioritising the most trustworthy evidence available.

Examples of evidence-based data to collect for a target population:

  • Demographics: e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation, disability
  • Social & Economic: e.g. employment rates, income, social security, health outcomes, educational attainment, food insecurity, housing
  • Behaviours: e.g. health risk factors for example smoking prevalence, school meal uptake, breastfeeding rates, services use, Healthy Start uptake, and also proven positive behaviours and studies
  • Environmental: e.g. green space, crime rates, air quality, amount of green spaces,  transport facilities and access

Evaluating Impact

How do you plan to prove that your project and approach has created the change you planned?

Examples of monitoring and evaluation data to capture:


  • Number of sessions held
  • Numbers of attendees/households/members (unique & total)
  • Demographics of attendees
  • Quantitative changes (measurable) pre (base-line) & post, and 3 month follow up/ 6 months follow up. This could be done through questionnaires with project beneficiaries.
  • Number of referrals or signposting.


  • Case studies
  • Interviews or semi-structured interviews
  • Group feedback, focus groups
  • Open ended survey
  • Observations
  • Participant diaries or journals
  • Changes in an organization e.g. adopting a healthy eating policy or charter

Example Theory of Change – Bridging the Gap

Good Food Enterprise: Working to provide food that is good for people and the planet, and support local production playing a part in community beyond trading.


Definitions of key terms used in this toolkit.

Open glossary

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