TOC: A theory about everything?

Especially for development projects a theory that explains how to improve the world and the wellbeing of all people in it, would be very handy. Unfortunately we know such a theory doesn’t exist. Precisely because change happens in so many ways, organisations working in development should be clear about how they want to push it in the direction they think it should go. A Theory of Change (TOC) helps organisations explain why they do what they do.

Thinking about your interventions using a clear TOC helps to provide focus to your work and makes it easier to communicate it to others. But above all, by making your reasoning explicit you uncover possible weaknesses. It reveals the assumptions that you make for your interventions to succeed. By doing so it opens up discussion, either internally in your organisation or with other stakeholders, on how the intervention can be improved.

What should a TOC contain if an organisation wants it to explain its interventions? I see two fundamental different ways in which organisations use TOC:

  1. The contribution to the world: At this general level organisations use a TOC to clarify their purpose and approach. The TOC resembles a mission statement. It tells why an organisation does things and how it believes it makes a difference, in other words: their model of change.
  2. The logical sequence of activities: The TOC is seen by organisations as a method to describe their intervention approach. It explains the effects they hope to achieve with their actions: their theory of action. This is an integral part of the PME cycle as it helps organisations monitor results.

Both ways are useful in practice, but each of them only tells half of the story. I believe a TOC is not complete if it does not cover both levels and makes clear linkages between the two. With its model of change the organisation takes a normative stance on what processes of change are important. Often this draws on a strong conviction, rather similar to the ideology of a political party, and understanding the views on desired change is necessary to understand the choices that are made. However, it is when the step of translating these believes into theories of action is made that the TOC is completed. The TOC now gets hands and feet and opportunities for testing and discussing the effectiveness of interventions become available. The insights from learning in practice can be used again to reflect in the organisation’s model of change.

In practice, development practitioners make the distinction between models of change and theories of action implicitly (but not always explicitly), because without an underlying model of change their work has no focus. Take for example an organisation working in the field of education. The choices of interventions are plentiful. The organisation could for instance aim its efforts at providing better information to the parents, because it argues that if parents become more involved in the education of their children, they will put pressure on the schools for organising their teaching well and they will also stimulate their children to do their best. Of course, it is useful to make this reasoning explicit, as it helps evaluating if you achieve the change you hope for. However, it does not explain why the organisation targets parents in the first place. Why not advocate for educational policy, or campaign for the enrolment of girls, or improve the curriculum of the teachers? Anyone who wants to understand the TOC of this organisation also needs to know the organisation’s convictions on how change happens. One can only assume that the organisation thinks that citizen’s participation or organising communities are important driving forces.


Action research

The nice thing about the organisation working in education in the example above is that the intervention logic is described at a practical level (even if the underlying drive is implicit). That is useful if you want to test the value of specific actions for instance through action research.

In Double Loop assignments we use TOC specifically as part of action research. We do not necessarily start the action research with a reflection on the organisation’s TOC. Sometimes it can be easier to build the research on existing programme theory and reflect in more detail on the TOC later. The fact that field staff and partners describe the programme approach systematically has the advantage that they discover possible weaknesses themselves and formulate their own questions for further testing.

Describing the intervention logic can be done very practically through “so that…, so that… stories” that explain how actions (are meant to) bring about change. Some steps will be clear, but the staff will always find connections between effects they want to achieve with the interventions that they are less sure about. And specifically those topics that are uncertain will be formulated into action research questions. From here, a research plan will be made that explains how and who will investigate these doubts and how the results will be discussed within the organisation. If the staff investigates these topics themselves they develop their own critical thinking and strengthen their practice directly.

The practical description of the intervention logic for action research focuses in fact on the theory of action. To get a complete picture of the TOC a link needs to be made to the ‘model of change’. For action research this can be done at the start or at a later stage as described above. When the action research process is more extensive, we prefer to first pay attention to making the organisation’s TOC explicit and then prioritise the most important issues that need investigation.

To conclude

A Theory of Change is the combination of the ‘model of change’ and the ‘theories of action’ of an organisation. It describes how the organisation translates believes about how change happens into actions.

Being specific about the intervention logic makes it possible to learn from practice, and at the same time it reveals the underlying conceptual thinking. A TOC helps development organisations to be clear about the essence of their work and to identify ways to improve it.

In a sense, a TOC is a theory about everything for an organisation: everything that the organisation believes in and does.