“A theory of change defines all building blocks required to bring about a given long-term goal. This set of connected building blocks—interchangeably referred to as outcomes, results, accomplishments, or preconditions—is depicted on a map known as a pathway of change/change framework, which is a graphic representation of the change process.”1

While this sounds a lot like a logic model, a theory of change typically includes much more detail about how and why change is expected to happen. For example, a theory of change may describe necessary conditions that must be achieved in order to reach each level of outcomes and include justifications for hypotheses. While logic models are essentially descriptive—communicating what a project will do and the outcomes it will produce—theories of change are more explanatory.  An arrow from one box in a logic model to another indicates, “if we do this, then this will happen.” In contrast, a theory of change explains what that arrow represents, i.e., the specific mechanisms by which change occurs.

Some funding programs, such as NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education program, call for proposals to include a theory of change. Developing and communicating a theory of change pushes proposers to get specific about how change will occur and include strong justification for planned actions and expected results.

To learn more, see “An Introduction to Theory of Change” in Evaluation Exchange at http://bit.ly/toc-lm, which includes links to helpful resources from the Center for Theory of Change (http://www.theoryofchange.org/).

1http://www.theoryofchange.org > Glossary

About the Authors

Lori Wingate

Lori Wingate box with arrow

Executive Director, The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University

Lori has a Ph.D. in evaluation and more than 20 years of experience in the field of program evaluation. She is co-principal investigator of EvaluATE and leads and a variety of evaluation projects at WMU focused on STEM education, health, and higher education initiatives. Dr. Wingate has led numerous webinars and workshops on evaluation in a variety of contexts, including CDC University and the American Evaluation Association Summer Evaluation Institute. She is an associate member of the graduate faculty at WMU.

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