Creating a Theory of Change

To ensure that P/CVE projects are designed to have tangible impact, consider developing a Theory of Change (ToC) to articulate why and how your project will meet your goals. The section below introduces some useful tips and exercises to develop a ToC which will help you plan your activities and connect them to the change you seek to make. You may already be implementing activities to prevent or counter VE. In this case, a ToC can help you articulate the purpose of your project and its relation to P/CVE goals. It is also an opportunity to determine whether you should alter your approach and redesign your project. This process will also help to inform a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) plan, discussed in the Monitor & Evaluate module.

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According to USAID, a Theory of Change (ToC) “describes how and why the process of change is expected to take place and how your organization intends to directly and/or indirectly work to influence desired change and achieve the stated Project Purpose.”

  • Theories of change are short statements that clarify the logic and rationale of the project’s purpose. They explain the “what, how and why” of the expected change.

A carefully structured ToC should help you to:

  1. clarify which dynamics and drivers are leading to radicalization and recruitment of within the local system you are addressing, and your entry points within that system;
  2. state clearly the goals of the project, related to preventing and/or countering violent extremism; and
  3. fully articulate how and why the project will address the dynamics and drivers of violent extremism to achieve its goals.

Theories of change are often expressed as “if/then” statements; “If we do X (action), then we will produce Y (change/shift towards peace, stability, security).” To ensure conflict sensitivity it is also recommended to add the underlying assumptions and logic of why we think X will produce Y, by adding Z – “because.” This “because” statement serves to highlight our assumptions – and related risks–and how we will address them through programming.

    Implementation Tips

    Envisioning the Future: Blue Sky Thinking

    Before you construct your Theory of Change, here is a group exercise to help you consider the goals and objectives of your project:

    • It’s the end of the project, and a news reporter is writing an article about the major changes that your program has contributed to. What changes will the reporter write about? What are three characteristics that would describe this impact?
    • Write up to three big picture goals or achievements that have resulted from the project. Group similar responses together based on thematic areas. Then review and prioritize the goals as a large group. Next, detail together the assumptions that must hold true to be able to achieve these prioritized goals.
    Steps to Construct a Theory of Change
    Conduct a VE or conflict analysis to better understand the context and local system.
    • Please refer to the Assess module for different assessment tools and additional guidance on conducting assessments.
    Identify the conflict dynamics, drivers, and mitigating factors to be addressed.
    • The VE drivers’ assessment and/or the dividers and connectors tool found in the Assess module can help determine which VE or conflict dynamics can be addressed by your project.
    Identify the Project/Activity Purpose. Identify what and who.

    Given the dynamics identified, what needs to change to decrease VE and/or increase resilience to VE? Here you can decide: 

    • What type of change is desired (change in attitudes, behaviors, or institutions)?
    • Who is the target of change (key leaders, specific groups of people, or communities)?
    • Who are the key actors able to make this change (and have available resources to mobilize others)?
    • At what level is the change taking place (individual, community, sub-national, or national level)?
    Develop the Approach.

    Once the purpose is defined (what and who), the focus moves to how the change will happen. The Selecting your Activities section of this module guides you by linking the assessment frameworks in the Assess Module to your programming area. Before you move to programming principles and strategies, here are some initial questions to help you design your P/CVE approach:

    What is likely to have the most significant impact on the purpose (why/how)? 

    • Given the context, VE drivers, culture, geography, and target groups, what approaches could be used, and which activities are most suitable?
    • What is your organization’s capacity to implement these activities?

    How will the purpose of the project/activity be achieved? 

    • How are key stakeholders engaged?
    • Where is the work to take place, and with whom? 
    • How will target populations be included? Are they easily reached?  
    • How can the approach address negative perceptions and possible backlash vis-à-vis the grievances identified in steps 1 and 2?
    • How can the project contribute to building governmental capacity and commitment to effectively prevent and counter VE? 

    How might assumptions impact the activity? 

    • What assumptions are being made about the context and the activity?  
    • What factors are outside of your organization’s control that may impact the work? 
    • What assumptions were made in the design?  
    • How might these assumptions affect the desired change in the conflict and VE dynamics?   
    Articulate the Theory of Change.

    Show how the change will happen with a carefully articulated “if/then” statement. 

    • Specify the type of change and the target of change.  
    • Add a “because” statement to explain the assumptions and logic of why and how that change will take place. Here is a brief exercise that can help you develop your Theory of Change.   
    Types and Targets of Change Exercise

    This group exercise helps to produce sample Theories of Change that can be further adapted as activities are developed and refined.

    Assess the Theory of Change.

    Check the Theory of Change. 
        • Are there any gaps in the logic?  
        • How realistic are the assumptions?  
        • Is the Theory of Change clear and understandable? 
        • Does it demonstrate logic and common sense, reflecting existing research? 

    Monitor and Evaluate Outcomes and Impacts.

    The Monitor & Evaluate module will help you develop a monitoring and evaluation plan for your ToC and a plan to monitor your assumptions.

    USAID’s Theories and Indicators of Change (THINC) Matrix summarizes the major theories of change in the practice of conflict management, prevention, and resolution. The THINC Matrix can help you develop your Theory of Change.

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