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Theory of Change


Although UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) calls increasingly require applicants to provide a Theory of Change (ToC) (Caven & Read, 2019), it is not a new concept. ToC has its origins in programme theory and informed social action and participatory approaches (both from the 1960s) and has been adopted by the development community relatively recently (Vogel, 2012). ToC might be best conceived of as a holistic and collaborative and dialogical project planning approach.

While ToC is useful at any project stage, it is particularly suitable as a basis for other Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tools, such as Pathways to Change and the logframe. Vogel (2012) suggests taking a ToC approach when brainstorming for the proposal, as it helps to explain “what is behind the arrows” (ibid.: 20) and is “a theory of how and why an initiative works” (Stein & Valters, 2012 in: Valters: 2014: 3). It thus appears adequate for the open-ended nature of development-related research as it helps to build a more robust yet adaptive case. Vogel's report of ToC user feedback from the development community provides an insightful summary:

The mapping of the logical sequence is strengthened by critical thinking about the contextual conditions that influence the programme, the motivations and contributions of stakeholders and other actors, and the different interpretations (assumptions) about how and why that sequence of change might come about…Theory of Change is best kept flexible, not prescribed…it is both a process and a product.” (Vogel, 2012: 3/4)

The above comment touches on the tension between ToC as “precise planning tool, most likely an extension of the ‘assumptions’ box in a logframe or ‘way of thinking’ about how a project is expected to work” (Valters, 2014: 3). In other words, ToC can be as used formalistically, or holistically and collaboratively as the user wishes to make it. It certainly has the potential to shape project planning, the interactions with partners and the monitoring framework. The ToC literature referred to in the resource bank may help the reader with finding a position on that continuum.

Research Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Planning and Evaluating Change-oriented Research, Brian Belcher, Rachel Claus, Rachel Davel, Stephanie Jones, and Luisa Ramirez, Sustainability Research Effectiveness

Research Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Planning and Evaluating Change-oriented Research

Authors: Brian Belcher, Rachel Claus, Rachel Davel, Stephanie Jones, and Luisa Ramirez

© 2019 Sustainability Research Effectiveness

IGSD Review

This two-page worksheet is a great entry point to ToC, providing templates and sample questions that can be used. We like the explanation of hosting a workshop and the value of this and it has some useful tips on evaluation too.

Review of the use of 'Theory of Change' in international development, I. Vogel

Vogel, I. (2012) Review of the use of 'Theory of Change' in international development. Review Report for the UK Department for International Development: London. Available at:

IGSD review

This report is the result of a survey with development organisations and was commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Lightly drawing on background literature, it presents its core elements, critical issues and provides practical suggestions (e.g. how to start, tips for the visual presentation and the stages leading up to it). Since it is based on ToC user interviews it also provides a detailed discussion on how it can be used differently. The latter might be of particular relevance since it enables a critical reflection on how the context of the proposed research project matches the different approaches in general. It might also stimulate thoughts about the extent to which the proposed research project could “learn” something from differently inspired approaches and how the ToC might help with complexity, open-endedness, and the need for adaptive and co-produced monitoring at the different project stages. From a pragmatic point of view, considering that DFID funded calls increasingly ask for Pathways to Change, we consider that reading this report is a well-spent couple of hours. It will also be useful for research teams who might consider adopting the ToC as tool for collaboratively conceiving the project proposal and use the resulting insights for informing other elements, such as the logframe. Lastly, the fact that this is a review report, itself reflectively analysing the views of interviewees from various development organisations and research institutions, increases its value.

Theory of Change Technical Papers, D.H. Taplin, H. Clark, E. Collins, and D.C. Colby

Taplin, D.H., Clark, H., Collins, E. and Colby D.C. (2013) Theory of Change Technical Papers. ActKnowledge: New York. Available at:&nbsp;<o:p></o:p>

IGSD review

More than a series of technical papers, this is a short, non-development focused ToC 'instruction manual'. Listing the six core elements of a ToC it also contains a section on the link between the ToC and M&E, with comments on the collaborative definition of indicators, on framing evaluation questions and identify points or criteria of reflection for adapting or extending the ToC. This is a high-level crash course on ToC which provides the reader with the essentials.

Theories of Change in International Development: Communications, Learning, or Accountability?, C. Valters

Valters, C. (2014) Theories of Change in International Development: Communication, Learning, or Accountability? The Justice and Security Research Programme Paper 17. LSE: London. Available at:

IGSD review

Discussing the ToC from the point of view of The Asia Foundation and presenting a review of existing debates and critiques of the ToC, Valters (2013) critically analyses the three tasks (communication, learning, and accountability) for which that Foundation has adopted the ToC, the impacts these three tasks have on the organisation and its staff, and the communities it works with, and the tension between these three tasks (e.g. ToC as accountability tool vs. learning). For those who are interested in delving deeper into conceptual considerations, Valters also discusses the impact results and evidence development discourses on the ToC users’ ability to benefit from the ToC’s critical approach to deal with complexity. This argument points to the importance of a critical reflection of what is being used to count as evidence of change. The six key findings at the end of the paper reflect on these insights. Again, as indicated further above, if included, such considerations may increase the robustness of a proposal.

Theory of Change vs Logical Framework – what’s the difference?

Theory of Change vs Logical Framework - what's the difference?

Piroska Bisits Bullen, Tolls4Dev Blog Post, accessed 23.11.2020

A short summary of some differences between a Theory of Change and Logical Framework that may provide a useful entry point to anyone considering how to structure M&E for their research.

UKRI GCRF Theory of Change

GCRF Evaluation Foundation Stage Final Report

Authors: Julian Barr, Billy Bryan, Peter Kolarz, Xavier Potau, Mel Punton, Paul Simmonds, and Isabel Vogel

UKRI's Foundation Stage Evaluation of GCRF includes its Theory of Change for the Global Challenges Research Fund programme. It provides a really useful insight in to the overall objectives of the programme, and how they expect the research they fund through their GCRF programme to contribute to long term objectives. It is also interesting to note that this document makes clear the close alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, suggesting the importance of connecting research to the SDGs wherever possible for researchers pursuing GCRF funding.

Audio-visual Resources
Sample Theories of Change