Nonprofit Theory of Change

Developing a Nonprofit Theory of Change

Developing a theory of change for your nonprofit organization is one of the core foundations of strategy.  If your nonprofit does not have a logical and compelling understanding of how you create change then you undermine the success of your organization. It is only when your organization has a “true north” compass point about the change you make that you will be able to credibly evaluation of your organization’s impact on the community you serve. 

Those who are regular readers of this blog know that strategic planning is one of the recurring themes of my writing. I dwell on this subject because I am convinced that nonprofit leaders must continue to think, plan, and act strategically.  Indeed, in the past, I have argued that the changing landscape of philanthropy demands strategy (see here) and a focus on outcomes and accountability (see here).  The days of red buckets and bell ringing as a way to attract capital are disappearing.  Philanthropy, even at the “small dollar” level of many individual donors, is shifting towards those organizations who not only have compelling stories but compelling data as well.  What is your return on investment? What are your behavioral outcomes? How have systems changed as a result of your effort?

As an opening premise to strategic thinking, I contend that the foundation for nonprofit strategy is an organization’s theory of change. A theory of change describes how your nonprofit organization connects its activities to create a pathway towards the goals and outcomes associated with your organizational mission.  While the idea of a theory of change can get a bit esoteric (see here), I think of the idea as much more down to earth. Simple change has a simple theory. More complex change has more complex theories. The classic illustration of a theory of change is the story of the village on the river that some of you have likely heard more than once.

Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of the river.  Everyone was happy in the village, kids played in the river, mother’s washed their clothes there, and all was good.  One day, a mother was at the river finishing up her laundry when she saw a body floating down the river.  She called for help, and a few folks nearby helped her drag the man out of the river.  He was barely alive, unconscious, and so they took the man to the doctor for help.  The next day the man was still unconscious when some people on the river saw another body floating down. Again they pulled the man out of the river and took care of him.  Each day new bodies came down the river -some men, some women, some children and all needing help. As the village was doing their best to care for the people, one older man picked up his water bottle, walking stick, and started to leave the village.  One of the villagers stopped the man and said, “you can’t leave now, we need everyone to help take care of all of the people we pulled from the river.”  The man answered, “It’s about time someone goes upstream to find out why these people are falling in the river in the first place.”

Out of this story are three possible theories of change.

•  We pull people out of the river and nurse them back to health.

•  We go upstream and prevent the problem in the first place.

•  We blend a mix of helping people in need and also work towards preventing the problem in the first place.

Granted that most social service problems are complex require both a direct service and “upstream” system’s change work approach but that does not mean that every nonprofit organization is capable of (or should do) both kinds of work. The fundamental reason to think through your nonprofit theory of change is to be clear about what you do and who you are.

Creating a theory of change requires one to be clear about two dimensions of action.  The first dimension is what your nonprofit does that is focused on creating change for individuals through direct services.  The second dimension is thinking clearly about if (and/or) how your nonprofit works to change systems.

Individual Change Theory – An organization that focuses on individual change needs to be clear about the underlying behavioral theories that support their work.  For example, if your nonprofit provides substance abuse treatment programs, you likely use one of the numerous evidence-based practices that support positive treatment outcomes.  Similarly, an early childhood literacy program that uses trained parent tutors to deliver a curriculum is focused on creating and sustaining individual change. When your work is primarily focused on individual behaviors and actions, your theory of change needs to address, the program efficacy, quality, scalability, and fidelity.  In short, your story needs to focus on how much, how well, and does it matter related to your programs and outcomes.

 Systems Change Theory – Elsewhere, I have written more extensively about a socioecological approach (here) to systems’ change. In this post, it is work repeating that beyond promoting individual action and behavior change, many problems require a multi-dimensional approach to systems change.  For example, if your agency goal is to help young people avoid becoming addicted to tobacco, a starting place may be education targeting children before they start smoking and may also include helping young “social smokers” to stop experimenting with tobacco.  This is an individual change theory approach.  But, in this case, two decades of comprehensive tobacco control programming has taught us that keeping young people from tobacco addiction also includes working on system changes to support the individual education.  Tobacco control must also include such strategies as increasing taxes to raise the price of tobacco products, developing strong anti-smoking norms through media messaging, and restricting access to tobacco products through retailer interventions, to name but a few.  In this case, your theory of change would identify how these strategies work together to create change. When you focus on systems and actions, then your theory of change needs to address,  leverage, cumulative impact, and attribution.  In short, your story needs to focus on what part each plays, how the whole is more than the sum of the parts, and how the multiple elements to your model are justified and are attributed to your efforts.

Understanding how your agency effects change is based on a process of dialogue and documentation.  Such dialogues can be rich explorations that may drive your team into to peer-reviewed literature underlying your program approach, question the strength of your data and outcomes, and force you to create a logical representation of your theory.  Logic models, social impact models and outcome mapping are tools that can be used in the documenting process (see here & here).  Coincidently, today, Neighborhood Partnerships published a blog post on their website that illustrates the concepts of this post beautifully! They reference, theory and illustrate their theory of change (see secret sauce here).

Being clear about your theory of change is vital to your nonprofit because it allows you to communicate clearly, where along the river you are working.  This understanding allows you more effectively partner with others working in the same river looking for connections, efficiency, and the ability to both create systemic change upstream and work intensively with those individuals currently downstream.

Resources today are too scarce not to invest in thinking about our theory of change. Indeed, I contend that if a nonprofit fails to articulate how it creates change, the agency does a disservice to the community they serve. Nonprofit strategy and leadership must anchor to a logical and compelling theory of change.



Photo Credit: Danielle Olson


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.


  1. Thanks for mentioning us, Mark. Being relatively new to NP I’ve found the theory of change hopeful, refreshing and grounding. I completely agree that it’s the most important thing a nonprofit can do.

  2. Indeed, it is an important exercise and over my five years of consulting, have found that those who have invested the time in thinking through (and periodically revisiting) their model of change are those who happen to be on the leading edge. Not surprised that Neighborhood Partnerships has that figured out!

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