Useful Practices

Don’t do it alone.
Develop your TOC together with staff and leadership who can bring multiple perspectives to the framework.

If you’re stuck, tell your story.
If you find it challenging, start by telling someone in your own words about the need your program exists to address, the component parts of the program, and what it aims to achieve. Ask someone to take notes, and/or sketch out the relationships between your program’s activities and outcomes as you talk about them.

Or, have someone interview you.
Sometimes answering someone else’s questions about your program’s goals, activities, and outcomes can help you clarify and specify these components.

Make sure your outcomes reflect change.
Your outcomes should be specific and measurable. Move beyond outputs or process measures. Visualize “before” and “after” pictures of an individual benefitting from your program. Ask yourself:

  • What can that person do now that they couldn’t before?
  • How does their daily life look different?
  • How might their future look different?

Experiment with format and structure for clarity and visual power.
There is no one right look for a TOC. The right product and format should be clear, compelling, and easy to reference for you and your staff. Consider images, language, and structures that resonate with the culture, approach, and practices of your organization and the communities you serve.

Check your work.
If you talk through your model out loud with a partner and put it into a narrative form, are the components and the links among components clear and aligned with each other?

Keep best practices in mind. A strong Theory of Change is:

  • Meaningful: Does the TOC describe work that is compelling and meets an important need in a persuasive way?

  • Plausible: Does evidence and common sense suggest that core program components will lead to desired change?

  • Achievable: Are resources and time available to carry out the effort?

  • Testable: Is the TOC sufficient, credible and useful in tracking and measuring progress and outcomes?

Common Pitfalls

Confusing accountability with hope.
Be realistic about the change you can actually achieve and be held accountable for.

Creating a mirror instead of a target.
Activities reflect what your program is currently doing rather than what your program wants and should be doing. Work from what your program will be accountable for to identify the necessary activities, strategies, resources, capabilities, culture, and so on needed to make change happen.

Failing to take the external context into account.
You haven’t taken into account the larger context of your program, failing to ask what is happening in your community that is similar to or different from your program and might affect its success.

Not confirming your theory’s plausibility through research and external review.
Your TOC does not reflect, or is not sufficiently grounded in, your field’s research or evidence base to verify your theory is plausible, and you have not had any external peer review.

Creating a theory that isn’t measurable.
You haven’t articulated the measurable steps in the change process to track progress toward, and achievement of, your outcomes.

Assuming you’ve figured it all out.
You haven’t checked your assumptions for accuracy and relevance.

Source: Forti, M. (2012, May 23). Six Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid. Stanford Social Innovation Review (

Tips for a Successful Journey

Engage your team, leaders, and critical friend

  • Involve leadership and staff in developing the Program Model and Theory of Change
  • Engage "friendly critics" in the process (e.g., peer organizational leaders, program alumni, field experts) whose insights and experiences may challenge or validate your TOC and test its strength
  • Determine a champion and sub-team to guide the process
  • Communicate openly in the process to promote a culture of learning

Use the worksheets

  • Use the worksheets to draft content for your Program Model and Theory of Change
  • Be collaborative – form staff groups to “workshop” content for worksheets
  • Seek input from those who are closest to the work as well as field experts
  • Don’t rush – think critically to design a program that can achieve results

Trust the process

  • The Theory of Change process is as worthwhile as the product
  • Be prepared to iterate – don’t rush through tough conversations about what processes are working or not working
  • Articulating the research, evidence, assumptions, and beliefs underlying the program design will strengthen the model and help clarify measures