The Theory of Change: A Tool for Bringing Board Members Together
Passion for mission, also known as the dissatisfaction with the status quo, is often described as the driver for what brings individuals to a nonprofit board. But remember, a board consists of individuals, and while years of service can often result in an aligned board being clear about values and interests, a “Theory of Change” exercise is an efficient and effective process and resultant tool for developing a collective “term of agreement.” This term of agreement can, in turn, provide the catalyst and focus for collective action.
The Theory of Change isn’t new. It’s been around as an evaluative tool in one form or another for about 20 years. And, in spite of all the convoluted descriptions of what precisely is a Theory of Change, the concept is simple: It is a statement. It describes the common assumptions that bring people to the (board) table and, building upon those assumptions, a hypothesis about what is needed to bring about a given long-term result or outcome. The process to develop a Theory of Change statement provides a board and staff with the foundation defining the organization’s mission and constructing the organization’s logic model: What are the desired resources, activities, and expected or desired results to achieve a mission?
There are three essential components to Theory of Change that can be framed as questions:
• What (does each board member) possess as core assumptions, beliefs, and passions about the world and/or the circumstances that should be preserved or changed?
There must be agreement and clarity about who the organization’s primary constituent is and what it is about this constituent that calls members to action. In this conversation, facts matter as beliefs and assumptions, as these are the drivers that bring like-minded folks together to
• What does the board collectively believe to be the most effective and practical approach that will produce the most-desired results?
The Theory of Change intervention statement expresses how change can be accomplished at the macro level. This is the cause-and-effect conversation that postulates: If we do “this,” then “that” will happen with “that,” circling back to the core beliefs about the state of the world—then
going forward to the desired results.
• What does each board member believe will be the result if a selected approach is successful?
Theory of Change provides the board with the framework for strategic and annual plans and serves as a primary reference point for measuring results and success.
There are two options to creating your organization’s theory: One is to have the staff develop a draft statement to be discussed by the board, and the other is to have the board develop a theory through a facilitated process.
If having deep board ownership (often resulting in fuller engagement and even participation in external activities, like fundraising and policy advocacy), the second approach is proven to provide a better outcome.