Go Beyond Board Recruitment With the Theory of Change
Throughout the nonprofit sector, there is significant activity around building a board that is inclusive and reflects the constituency of each nonprofit. The end result: more effective services. But recruitment is just the first step in achieving these outcomes. One tool that can help: The Theory of Change.
Most people join a board because of a genuine desire to give back to the community. Sometimes it’s at the invitation of a friend or colleague; other times it’s in response to a community need that closely aligns with an individual’s personal values.
While one member may be clear about his or her values and goals, the most effective boards are a collection of individuals who share and agree upon a specific set of beliefs and assumptions. These assumptions are consistent around:
- The current circumstances of a particular issue. (The world as it is and, perhaps, how it could be different or what is the problem to be solved?)
- An approach or intervention appropriate to solving the selected problem.
- How the community will be different or the result of solving the selected problem if the selected approach is successful.
The intensity and passion that’s intrinsic to serving in the nonprofit sector can lead to burnout — that overwhelming feeling that a problem is too big or the obstacles to solving a problem are not resolvable. That same intensity can lead to conflict within the board if people aren’t operating under similar assumptions. The solution is to think about what you’re doing and why, through a Theory of Change process — one tool for developing and expressing a collective terms of agreement.
The Theory of Change isn’t new. It’s been around as an evaluative tool in one form or another for about 30 years. And, in spite of all the convoluted descriptions of what exactly the Theory of Change is, 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, hypotheses about what is needed to achieve a given long-term result or outcome. The Theory of Change statement provides a board and staff with the foundation for defining the organization’s mission and constructing the organization’s logic model — the steps that will identify the results and activities needed to achieve the mission.
There are four essential components to Theory of Change that can be framed as questions:
- What are your core beliefs and passions about the world and/or circumstances you believe should be preserved or changed? Nonprofits can be as much about retaining something precious — like art or species or even values — as much as changing some condition. It is essential to note that your personal beliefs have been shaped by all of your experiences — educational, home, social, cultural and spiritual, to name a few. An understanding of your beliefs and assumptions about the world will help you understand if and how you fit within the rest of the board.
- Who is your primary customer/client and what is it about this constituency that calls you to action? This conversation will again be filled with discussions about your assumptions and beliefs. It is of course best if these assumptions could be informed by facts as these facts will shape the feasibility of the next question.
- What does the board collectively believe to be the most effective and practical approach or intervention 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 and then going forward to the desired results.
- What do you believe will be the results if your selected intervention is successful? Most importantly, will the results you describe in your answers produce the impact on the world and/or your selected constituency in accordance with your core beliefs and passions?
When nonprofits are already pressed for resources (with time being a very precious resource), it can be a difficult proposition to allocate time for a new exercise. But investing in this process not only saves organizational resources, it often generates new ones and creates better outcomes. Your investment will make your organization more effective and more attractive to potential donors.
When your exercise is complete, the resulting Theory of Change provides the board with the framework for strategic and annual plans and with a primary reference point for measuring results and success.
Instead of assuming you’ll be able to get there from here, or trying to forge a path on your own, you are working as a team to construct the road you plan to travel.
There are two options to creating your organization’s Theory of Change:
- Have the staff develop a draft statement to be discussed by the board.
- Have the board develop a Theory of Change through a facilitated process. If you want the board to take ownership, you’re better off with this option.
To take the road-building metaphor a little further: When you’ve discussed and agreed on building materials, direction, width and other fundamental decisions, everyone clearly sees each person’s role in building the road. Expectations and long-held assumptions change. Stakeholders are more likely to carry out their responsibilities.
When the board and staff create the Theory of Change together, I’ve found that working relationships improve, and board meetings tend to be more effective. Another benefit is sometimes board members who want to go in a different direction will step aside, essentially clearing some of the roadblocks your organization has come up against.