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The 4 steps of an impact-generation theory of change

Activities, results, changes, impact. What comes first and how does it define everything else? What is the strategy that is behind the interventions in social organizations?

Let us go in order. I propose you an exercise. Imagine being able to stop, for a moment, all the daily errands and having time to do what really matters: dreaming. Yes, dreaming! I am not talking about a trip to the Caribbean or win the lottery. The type of dream I mention is another, humbler, perhaps, but not less challenging. I ask you to imagine that all your efforts to improve the lives of the people you work with are finally rewarded. I give you a moment to celebrate, since you should be felling a great satisfaction. Now, ask yourselves what are the changes that need to occur for that success to be no longer a dream.

This method of induced oblivion, that puts the immediate needs in second plan, creating enough room to challenge our pre-conceived notions about the meaning of the word impact, is called the theory of change/changing theory (?). Contrary to what the name suggests, it is a very practical process that a allows us to explain how the changes in life of one or more populations occur in time and relate themselves, following various paths. It also enables us to identify which interventions are necessary for those paths to be travelled by, as well as which metrics and indicators are used to measure the distance travelled. But even more important, it shows how a vision or purpose inspires a long-term change and how it guides a group of paths made of intermediate changes.

How does it work? The theory of change/changing theory organizes itself in four steps, which we will analyze below.

STEP 1. Formulate the vision and the long-term change

Here it is important to distinguish between “vision” and “long-term change”. The vision is located in the long term and translates an aspiration or purpose, formulated in a broad way. For instance, “A discrimination-free society based in gender”. Also located in the long term – but formulated in a specific way, measurable, reachable and delimited in time – is found the long-term change. For example, “Gender equality in every decision post in the next decade”.

STEP 2. Build the path(s)

Once established the vision and also the goal or long-term change, the necessary pre-conditions will be defined in order to achieve that goal. This process is called chronologically inverted mapping of changes. This way, the crucial clues are given for the development of the projects and organizations, keeping the focus on the vision e long-term change that is wanted – and not in the already implemented activities or to be planned.

STEP 3. Operationalize the Theory

After identifying the changes, it is necessary to identify and associate the indicators. These are extremely important, for they allow us to prove that the change happens and to what extent. It is only in this phase that are drawn the intervention strategies that can converge in the changes’ succession.

STEP 4. Writing the Narrative

The narrative is a summary of the theory, which presents the map of changes, explains its rational and assumptions and presents arguments for the specific intervention logic.

Since it clearly results from this journey, the theory of change is a planning and evaluation tool that allows: engage both interested parties (stakeholders) in the planning of change; shift the focus of the intervention from what is already being done toward what needs to be done; represent processes of change based in what really happens and evidences; integrate activities and strategies and, finally, assign the effective impact to the intervention made.

Although it is normally followed by other methodologies, the theory of change is the starting point for the majority of 4Change’s interventions. And there is one point that was not mentioned until now: the development of a theory of change is a collaborative and creative process that, above all, is fun. For remember: “If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.”


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