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Theory Of Change | Research Consulting

Understanding change

The topic of how we can understand, evaluate and help influence the nature of change is one of the great enduring challenges.

Some people embrace and relish change, others actively avoid it, preferring the status quo. But how can we better understand change and the implications of our actions, or indeed, inactions? For any particular activity, how can we assess the potential size and scale of the likely change that might result from our plans and proposals?

Individuals and organisations, nationally and internationally, are always trying to work out ways in which they can implement activities such as new policies or new programmes of work, against a constantly-changing backdrop of influencing factors, both direct and indirect. The world is changing at an ever-greater pace; standing still is now being left behind very quickly.

Fortunately, we have a tool that can help us understand and work with the world of change. This tool is the ‘theory of change’, and it is one that Research Consulting has often used for the benefit of clients in addressing their issues of concern.

What is the theory of change?

The theory of change has been described as: “Essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or ‘filling in’ the ‘missing middle’ between what a programme or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved.”1

According to academic literature2, a theory of change has a range of uses, including:

  • Designing and planning interventions and agreeing with stakeholders
  • Managing interventions and designing monitoring systems
  • Assessing interventions by making claims about impact or reporting performance
  • Generalising and scaling up and out.

Designing a theory of change means you have to consider a number of different components. These are typically:

  • Inputs: the financial, human, material, technological and information resources used for development interventions
  • Activities: actions taken through which inputs, such as funds, technical assistance, and other types of resources, are mobilised to produce specific outputs
  • Outputs: the changes in skills and capacities of individuals or institutions, or the availability of new products and services that result from the completion of activities from an intervention
  • Outcomes: changes in the institutional and behavioural capacities for development that occur between the completion of outputs and the achievement of goals
  • Impacts: the changes in people’s lives such as changes in a population’s knowledge, skill, behaviour, health or living conditions.

Helping global organisations understand ‘change’

We have used the theory of change tool to help several of our clients find the answers to their questions, helping them make sense of their data and complex information, and gain the necessary insights.

In a report commissioned by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, we used the theory of change as part of our study on ‘Strengthening research institutions in Africa’3. Our review looked at the key findings arising from the needs assessment of seven African countries that were considered for inclusion in the Strengthening Research Institutions in Africa (SRIA) programme: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The theory of change created the framework for careful consideration of the intervention’s inputs, outputs, outcomes and impacts.

Elsewhere, we have been commissioned, along with Science-Metrix, to undertake a new study for leading research funders Wellcome, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are using the theory of change to help understand the impact of requirements for the rapid and open sharing of research findings and data in public health emergencies (with a focus on Covid-19). In due course, we will be able to tell you more about this study and how we incorporated the theory of change.

Some clients know they specifically want us to adopt a theory of change approach while others are unaware of the tool and its applications. Whether clients are looking to inform an intervention or evaluate one, we have seen how useful the theory of change can be in shaping the evidence obtained and providing a framework for analysis and understanding.

If you would like further information on use of the theory of change, please email us:


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