You may have heard the term “theory of change” (ToC) used in recent years. There are many perspectives on how to use a ToC, including as: a way to track progress toward goals, an instrument to guide funding, and a communication tool. Since ToC is talked about and implemented in different ways, you might be tempted to dismiss it as technical jargon or a too-rigid management tool. It’s actually more useful to peace and social justice work than you might think. Let’s look at why that is, and how CFSC is using ToC to learn and be purposeful in our service work.
ToC helps you see connections
Perhaps the biggest benefit to using a ToC is that it aids us in thinking about how different issues are connected and how they affect each other. In social change groups like CFSC, creating a ToC permits us to understand the reason for our work through articulating the problems we seek to address. What changes do we want to see in the world? Who will experience those changes? What assumptions and beliefs are we resting on that explain the actions we’re taking?
As you can see, developing a ToC is a reflective practice. It involves diving deeply into our motives and reasoning for doing the work we do and examining the environment, relationships, and power structures that we operate with and in. Put simply: it allows us to communicate and agree on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what outcomes we expect to cause with our work. A ToC enables us to agree on what we consider success.
Through defining what we’re hoping for, we can then identify the activities that will lead us there. ToC helps us see whether work is contributing towards achieving this impact we envision, or if there is another way that we should consider instead. A ToC can be introduced to social change work at any time to help validate what’s currently being done, determine if resources are having the intended impact, and highlight specific areas that may need course correction.
ToC needs to be flexible
Setting up a ToC is like making a roadmap that outlines the steps we plan to take to reach our goal. There’s one important difference though. When you’re driving somewhere, the route is usually pretty well defined. Traffic might cause you to change course, but it’s unlikely that new roads will suddenly be built while you’re en route!
With social change work, things are far messier. The world is complex and many factors influence each other. A change in government, new laws, or emerging issues like the invasion of Ukraine can alter plans quite suddenly.
So in using ToC we must remain nimble and responsive. This is where continual discernment to listen together for the guidance of the Spirit is so important to CFSC’s use of ToC. We’re always learning and adapting, testing what seems to be working well and what hasn’t gone as expected. We frequently adjust, revising our theories about what actions are most needed and why.
What does this look like?
A ToC shows cause-effect relationships that we expect. It can be stated in the simple format “if [blank] then [blank] because [blank].” For example, “If CFSC sends Quaker Concern to our supporters then some will take new peace and justice actions because they have an increased awareness about opportunities for action.” Building up a series of these statements lays out the assumptions and logic behind our work. This makes it easier to work together harmoniously, and to spot and correct issues with how we’re working.
A ToC isn’t just a product, it’s also a process
As a process, creating a ToC is participatory. It’s developed in collaboration and conversation, especially with representation from the people that the work seeks to benefit. Together, participants agree on long-term goals, establish what success would look like (being as specific as possible), and decide how to act to bring about that success. They also identify risks. They do all this while sharing and challenging each other’s assumptions and evidence about how and why proposed activities will work (or not).
“This can be a form of finding Truth together.”
As a product, a ToC serves as a measurable description of our social change initiative. It forms the basis for future planning, on-going decision-making, and learning. It’s a valuable tool for documentation, evaluating and reporting on the larger implications of our work, and holding ourselves accountable. Documenting what happens when we do our work helps us see whether we’re moving closer to the world we seek. This requires using a critical eye. What outcomes have resulted from our actions? How effective are our partnerships? What can we do better?
This may all sound foreign or overly demanding, but the truth is, you’re already using a theory of change any time you act for justice or peace. You just might not have thought about it or looked into if it’s an accurate theory.
Have you ever written a letter to government? Have you ever signed a petition, gone to a protest, or voted? In each case you took those actions because you believed something would change as a result. You believed that if you went to the protest some decision maker might pay attention and change a policy or practice you were focused on. Or you believed that you would raise awareness and get community members to take note of the issue. Or you believed that nothing was likely to change but it was important to make a public witness nonetheless. Each of these is a theory of change.
The value of developing one ToC together with others you work with (which is what CFSC does) is that it forces you to think about your assumptions, discuss them out loud, and become clear together about what the work should entail and why. Done well, this can be a form of finding Truth together. It helps you think about your purpose and how you can be most effective with your limited time and energy.
Our world badly needs more effective peace and social justice change agents! So we need people having ToC discussions, being careful about why they’re acting in the ways they are, and learning from what they try.
This isn’t a one-time thing. The ToC process is ongoing, always involving research into what’s working well for other groups, and checking on the match between short-term activities and long-term goals in our work. This ongoing process reminds us not to lose sight of our vision as we get busy with day-to-day tasks. Ultimately, it brings the purpose of our service work to the forefront of everything we do.
Sarah Forrest is CFSC’s Peace Program Coordinator. Matt Legge is CFSC’s Communications Coordinator. To learn more about how to discern peace and social concerns read the pamphlet (PDF) at: https://QuakerService.ca/PeaceAndSocialConcerns