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Step 1: Creating a theory of change

What is a theory of change?

A theory of change captures some crucial details about why your intervention (often referred to as a programme) or service is necessary and what it aims to achieve. It can come in many forms, including a diagram or a written narrative.

For evaluation purposes, it should be the first step you work through, and your evaluation should then test and refine your theory of change.

The core elements of a theory of change: why, who, how and what

The core elements of a theory of change: why, who, how and what

Why is a theory of change important?

There are five reasons why a theory of change is an important part of your evaluation planning.

  • A theory of change lays the foundation for evaluation, which will test whether your programme or service has achieved what was intended.
  • It enables you to recognise and start to address any uncertainties or risks in your plans for the programme or service.
  • It enables you to ensure everyone involved is on the same page, which can help to improve how your programme or service is delivered.
  • It enables you to communicate the rationale for your approach, both within your organisation and more widely.
  • It is a useful tool to help refine and clarify existing programmes and services.

What are the key principles of a theory of change?

Below are the fundamental principles you will need to think about when developing a theory of change:

  • The theory of change should include information on why a programme or service is needed for children’s development and why it will add value; what the programme or service is, how it works, and who it is for; and what are the intended outcomes.
  • Intended outcomes should be both short-term and long-term, and focused on children’s development. These should be both plausible and measurable.
  • A theory of change should be based on scientific evidence. This will help to challenge any assumptions you have made about why or how a programme or service works to improve outcomes.
  • While the core elements of a theory of change remain the same for both programmes and systems, extra steps will be required for a system-level theory of change, including potentially undertaking a needs assessment and system mapping before you can start developing a theory of change.
  • How to
  • 2021
  • EIF
  • new
  • key resource

How to develop and confirm your theory of change

A summary guide to help you develop and confirm a theory of change for your intervention, including seven key questions to build around.

  • Video
  • 2020
  • EIF
  • key resource

Watch: Developing a good theory of change

A short video on building a theory of change, including what it is and why it matters, and using evidence to test your assumptions.

  • How to
  • 2021
  • EIF
  • new

How to find the evidence for your theory of change

A summary guide on the questions you need to answer, how evidence can help to answer these questions, and where to go to find the evidence you need.

  • Tool
  • 2021
  • EIF
  • new

Template: Theory of change

Use this template to build your own theory of change. The template is provided as a fillable PDF document.

  • Guide
  • 2019
  • EIF

10 steps for evaluation success

Our 10-step guide to help you progress along the evaluation journey. This landmark guide provides further details on step 1.

  • Guide
  • 2019
  • EIF

Evaluating early help: A guide to evaluation of complex local early help systems

Six key principles for undertaking evaluations within complex local systems. Principle 1 is particularly relevant when starting out on your evaluation journey.

  • Guide
  • 2021
  • EIF
  • new

Reducing parental conflict: A practical evaluation guide for local areas

A detailed guide aimed at those evaluating interventions and services in the reducing parental conflict arena, with tips, templates and practice examples.

  • Tool
  • 2020
  • EIF

Reducing parental conflict: Outcomes framework

A tool to help with identifying and considering relevant outcomes for children, in this example, specific to the impacts of reducing parental conflict.

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