The Theory of Change Process: When It Works . . . and When It Doesn’t

Shannon Ellis

As a follow-up to the blog “What is a Theory of Change and How Can You Use It?” CompassPoint Project Director Shannon Ellis draws on her experience as a consultant in this strategy area to share which situations are conducive to a successful theory of change process and which aren’t.


As we continue to develop our practices with the theory of change approach, both internally at CompassPoint as well as in our strategy work with clients, we’ve experienced and witnessed both successes and failures. Let’s be honest, there are some theories of change that “sit on a shelf” just like the thick strategic plans from yesteryear. It’s completely possible to have a theory of change process that feels like inane and incessant wordsmithing. Many processes still involve only the usual decision makers in the organization, and can hold residual assumptions about the value of top-down strategy setting. When wielded as a process or framework rather than as an approach or way of being, it can be just as limiting as the traditional tools of strategic planning.

But I’ve also been a part of theory of change processes that energize and fuel an organization’s momentum, open challenging conversations in new ways, and engage or re-engage the constituents who are most affected by the work of the organization. In my work with organizations on theory of change processes, I’ve noticed some trends about when a theory of change approach is successful in catalyzing organizational impact and when it can fall flat. The table below identifies some of these observations.

Table: Successful v Unsuccessful Theory of Change ProcessesIf you’ve been through an organizational theory of change process and have insights to add, share your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you have specific questions about the theory of change strategy tool, share those too! We’d be happy to share our experiences with the process.


Shannon Ellis is a CompassPoint Project Director specializing in consulting and training in the areas of finance and strategy.

Other Blogs by Shannon:

Recent Posts

We’re writing to let you know about some changes to our workshops program, what you can expect in 2019, and why we're excited about where we're headed with you.
 

Elizabeth Ayala

In this guest blog, Elizabeth Ayala (Senior Program Associate at the Women's Foundation of California) explores what it's like to tackle negative internal scripts through one-on-one coaching with a certified coach. Elizabeth participated in CompassPoint's Next Generation Leaders of Color (Inland Region) leadership development program over the last year.
 

Lupe Poblano

What can you do when diversity efforts fall short within your organization? ICompassPoint Project Director Lupe Poblano challenges readers—white and people of color—to confront white dominant culture within your nonprofit as the best way to move your organization toward equity. Lupe also provides practical, real suggestions on steps you can take to initiate change.
 

Submit a comment