There are those who will tell you that if you cannot evidence your results then your work is not worth doing. That somehow your organisation is now not worthy of support because your evaluation framework isn’t up to scratch. Branding organisations as ‘un-worthy’ due to the lack of metrics is not helpful for those organisations and makes the whole charity sector look rather silly.
I am fairly sure that there are some organisations that if they were to fall by the wayside no one would notice. Equally there are some very high impact organisations who fail to achieve their deserved profile. Many are obscured by the gloss and glitz of other players and causes with bigger communications budgets (and sometimes much less actual impact). Others simply underplay, or do not seek to understand, their achievements. Making best use of resources entrusted to charities and evidencing the impact of their work is essential for a thriving sector.
A key component of impact assessment is a Theory of Change. Beyond assessing your impact theory of change is also an excellent tool for organisational development and as such can provide clarity to help overcome many of the challenges faced by charities.
What then is a theory of change? Impact, outcomes and benefits all relate to the changes which occur as a result of activities and events. A theory of change is a description of why and how those activities and events lead (or led) to the impact, outcomes and benefits.
My favourite way to describe this is through ‘if’ and ‘then’. If we do this then we believe that will happen. You can of course make this more sophisticated by adding in ‘and’ and ‘because’. For example if we make our training available online and local volunteers support individuals to access the online programme at our centres (because we know that our service users are unlikely to log on by themselves and have limited access to computers at home) then we will be able to improve their knowledge of safety in the community. This approach, in words or pictures that everyone can understand, can then be easily be transcribed into a standardised format – such as a logic model – to keep the funders and academics happy!
Another, perhaps more petulant, approach is to keep asking ‘so what?’ Empowering everyone to ask ‘so what?’ is a powerful tool to affect change and focus minds on achieving a shared mission. ‘We have done XYZ.’ ‘So what?’ ‘Why?’ ‘How will that help us achieve our mission?’ Almost immediately old truths are challenged, barriers to achieving the mission are voiced, and new solutions are presented.
There are many more approaches to generating your theory of change. The approach you choose will depend on the circumstances of your organisation, but mostly it will depend on your organisational development reason for using a theory of change. Alongside assessing impact and underpinning an evaluation strategy a good theory of change can help transform any charity.