The concept of theory of change originated in the field of evaluation in response to the challenge of understanding causal factors that lead to desired community change (Anderson, 2005). It is defined as being “all building blocks required to bring about a given long-term goal” (Center for Theory of Change, 2012, p. ). Gail Weiss (1995), an early proponent of the idea, recognised that stakeholders of complex community initiatives were often unclear about how the change process would unfold. She perceived that inadequate attention was placed on early and mid-term changes that were required before a longer-term goal could be reached. Weiss proposed that theory-based evaluation would be more useful for understanding the impact of change initiatives than the more outcome-focussed strategies being used at that time.
Two separate functions can be identified for theory of change. The first is as a “tool and methodology to map out the logical sequence of an initiative from inputs to outcomes” (Vogel, 2012, p. 3). Funnell and Rogers also recognise this application, which they identify as “theory of action” (2011, p. xiv). The second function is part of a “deeper reflective process … amongst colleagues and stakeholders, reflecting on the values… and philosophies of change that make more explicit …underlying assumptions of how and why change might happen as an outcome of the initiative” (Vogel, 2012, p.3). For Funnell and Rogers, this aspect of the practice is identified as the “theory of change”. Vogel recommends theory of change approach as being the most effective when both functions are applied.
Theory of change and related practices, which Funnell and Rogers classify as program theories, are increasingly being applied in community-based change interventions. They list a large number of related practices which include intervention logic, logic model, program logic and theory based evaluation (2011, p. 24). Funding organisations more often request the application of such ideas to community change initiatives (Wolk & Stanzler, 2010). Vogel (2012) provides a comprehensive documentation of theory of change approaches within international development, identifying their move into the mainstream over the last five years.
Theory of change and related approaches have also begun to emerge in the literature about participatory arts over the last decade. They are particularly prevalent in projects led by researchers from disciplines outside the arts. Program logic and theory of action, for example, were used in an evaluation of community-based arts organisations led by epidemiologist Kelaher. This choice of methodology assisted the project’s aims “to reconcile the focus on evidence-based practice in health and the more emergent and experience-based nature of arts practice” (Kelaher et al, 2007, p. 1).
Early adaptors of theory of change in the arts sector include the USA-based Animating Democracy project, who seek to encourage “evaluative thinking” (Animating Democracy, 2012) from their stakeholders. Animating Democracy recommend theory of change to arts organisations because of its usefulness for the reasons similar to those identified by Vogel and Funnell and Rogers, as above.
Critics of theory of change approaches argue that complex interventions can rarely be explained by a single theory, and that assuming a logical pathway from theory to action and outcome is reductionist and unrealistic in the real world. Not surprisingly arts practitioners, who by the nature of their profession are more likely to work from intuitive assumptions and practice-based knowledge than logic-led models, are amongst its detractors (Etherton & Prenkti, 2007).
One of the challenges in the field of cultural development is the lack of formal literature. Even though much work occurs, it is not necessarily documented, formally theorised or evaluated. This dilemma regarding theory is an example. While a discussion about the relevance of theory of change has not yet been fully explored in the formal literature, it has appeared in informal public discussions. Several web-based blogs include advocacy by researchers and policy makers for theory-based approaches to arts practice, including theory of change (Artplace, 2012; Createquity, 2012). This advocacy is met with some antipathy by arts professionals. Issues of concern include the perceived lack of capacity for logic-based models to encompass all the dimensions of successful arts projects and the unsuitability of pictorial models for depicting arts practice (Goldbard, 2010).
However, many of the criticisms arts workers make of these approaches do not seem on well-informed views, but rather on a general antipathy to the relevance of theory to their work. For example, while prominent arts for change advocate Goldbard is amongst the critics of theory of change and other structured approaches to planning and evaluation, she concedes that they have some usefulness. She acknowledges the commonsense value of questions precipitated by such models including “what do you want to accomplish, what is required, what short- and long-term outcomes are anticipated” (Goldbard, 2010). Given that answers to such questions are the major purpose of theory of change models, it would seem that such opposition may be injudicious.
Anderson, A. (2005). The community builder’s approach to theory of change: A practical guide to theory and development. New York: The Aspen Institute.
Artplace (2012) Building a batter understanding of creative placemaking. Retrieved September 7, 2012 from: http://www.artplaceamerica.org/understanding-creative-placemaking/.
Center for Theory of Change (2012). What is theory of change? Retrieved September 12, 2012 from Theoryofchange.org.
Createquity (2012). In defense of logic models. Retrieved October 12, 2012 from http://createquity.com/2012/06/in-defense-of-logic-models.html.
Etherton, M. & Prentki, T. (2006). Drama for change? Prove it! Research in Drama Education, 11 (2), 139-155.
Goldbard, A. (2010). Truth in giving. Retrieved September 7, 2012 from http://arlenegoldbard.com/2010/05/27/924/.
Funnell, S., & Rogers, P. (2011). Purposeful program theory: effective use of theories of change and logic models. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kelaher, M., Berman, N., Joubert, L., Curry, S., Jones, R., Stanley, J., & Johnson, V. (2007). Methodological approaches to evaluating the impact of community arts on health. UNESCO Observatory Refereed E-Journal, 1(1), 1-20.
Vogel, I. (2012). Review of the use of “Theory of Change” in international development. UK: DFID. Retrieved from http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/pdf/outputs/mis_spc/DFID_ToC_Review_VogelV7.pdf.
Weiss, G. (1995). Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. In Connell, J., Kubisch, A., Schorr, L., & Weiss, C. (eds.). New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives. New York: The Aspen Roundtable Institute.
Wikipedia (2015). Theory of change. Accessed 4 May 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_change
Wolk, A., & Stanzler, C. (2010). How better data will shape the future of social problem solving. Philanthropy News Digest, November 11, http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/alliance/alliance_item.jhtml?id=314400001.