Making “Theory of Change” Useful in Your Campaigning
November 18, 2021
Contributor: Ned Howey
“Whatever you do, don't say the phrase ‘theory of change’ to our Executive Director,” warned one of my clients.
As it turns out, the term had become a ‘trigger’ after a former consultant had used it so much that the experience had left the staff nothing short of - as they described it - ‘traumatized’. And, indeed, in my own work - as I’m sure is the case for many others helping guide organizations and campaigns with people-powered strategies - the term appears regularly almost to the point of annoyance. But despite its seeming over-use, “where does this fit in your theory of change?,” or even, “have you determined a theory of change for this campaign?” remain some of the most effective questions to put forward. Yet shockingly often, the answer is still “we don’t know” or “no”. Unless you understand how ToC works and what it's useful for, this seeming semi-mantra of consultants and strategists can serve as no more than a nuisance. In our experience, though, practising and perfecting the application of ToC in strategic decision-making can be the key to winning power for campaigns.
When I first came across ‘theory of change’, I assumed it would be of great value as one specific step-by-step framework. My early attempts to track this approach down, though, yielded a disappointing result: rather than one specific set of steps, ToC is rather a broad array of models. Indeed, Theory of Change is not one immovable framework or model, but rather a general approach that ensures that change itself is the main driver behind any planned and prioritized course of action within a campaign strategy - a kind of guiding element which should serve as true north for all actions planned and taken. Models themself range from extremely simplistic to more complicated structures (such as the Logic Model which we utilize in our strategic consultations). The underlying element in all of them: It asks decision-makers to model their desired outcomes in order to decide and prioritize actions. (This is in contrast to campaigns with goals such as “raising awareness”, which we generally believe are not worth anything.)
A Bit of History
Theory of Change as a methodology is not limited to the work of movement-builders or political campaigners. In fact, more broadly, its origins can be found in 1990s program development, and specifically its popularization through the Aspen Institute’s work with community programs. For this same reason, ToC was heavily weighted towards its value in accountability, guiding everything from government and private grantor funding decisions to program evaluation during and after program implementation. Carol Weiss was particularly important in developing ToC methodology and educating program teams on its application as a way of professionalizing and giving a degree of science to change-makers. (To note, ToC was intended very much as an accountability tool - which itself can be problematic in some ways we won’t explore here). Its applications extend to public health, community, social, and other such programs that seek to keep making a change to the surrounding context, community, environment, or society as the objective of their projects.
For many, it's fairly obvious that change should be at the center of the work we do on people-based campaigns. So how does theory of change actually help in a practical sense? Here are a few specifics we’ve seen in our years of work:
When to Use ToC:
In terms of timing, ToC definitely should have a central place at the beginning of any campaign planning. Actions and prioritization of those actions first need to take into account what realistically must be done to actually have a shot at achieving the change being sought.
The planning of a campaign isn’t the only place ToC can have a role, however. As Marshall Ganz says,
“Strategy is a verb: a creative, continuous stream of tactical adaptation. It is something we do, not a noun, something we have. As we work toward our goal we learn from our successes and failures how to adapt our tactics to become more and more effective over time.”
We know that the art of successful campaigning is very much about strategic dynamism in uncertain political circumstances and keeping focused on the change being sought can help in the course of day-to-day decision-making.
One area of confusion is on what scale of campaigning ToC should be referred to. The great thing about ToC is that it's incredibly versatile. ToC operates at every level, micro and macro. ToC can apply to the larger plan of an organisation achieving their mission in the coming years or to the planning of a single action email.
I recall a client recently asking for help with their orientation events, which were communicated as general “meet and greets” and attended by about 15 percent of those who signed up. Drilling down, it became clear that the communications around the events didn’t help those signing up see their role or the value of donating their time to attend. They couldn’t see the relationship to the campaign’s ToC. As a result of adapting the event description to explain how participants would learn key roles, be assigned to teams, and start researching strategies for making change in their own communities, attendance increased substantially.
Getting Everyone on the Same Page
Strategic planning and decision-making is rarely done by a single person (if it was, in fact, it would be considerably less effective). ToC can help teams guide the discussion around how to think through different ideas on what interventions to take and, perhaps more importantly, how to weigh them. Additionally, having a clearly discussed or written ToC helps everyone who has to carry out part of the plan understand why they are responsible for a particular action, both performing the action with higher fidelity to its purpose, and with a greater sense of buy-in to conducting the action to begin with.
“Campaigns require tiny, fast decisions to be made every day. These choices have a collective impact that drives a campaign's direction. Having a defined Theory of Change allows everyone, from leadership to volunteers, to quickly apply the same framework in their decision making, creating a cohesive progressive echo of the movement's agenda while avoiding bureaucratic slowdowns” - Francesca Dulce Larson Managing Partner, Mosaic Strategies Group.
The same goes for supporters, volunteers, members, activists, and anyone who is giving freely of their time to help your campaign in some way. By engaging in your campaign, these individuals are giving some of their own resources (usually time, but also sometimes risking reputation, safety, comfort, etc). Whether this is simply taking two seconds to sign a petition and give their personal data to an organization which might ceaselessly bug them with donation request (please don’t), or being willing to go to jail to stand up to a government’s moral failings, supporters are making an exchange with the campaign for what they are giving. (Side note: ToC is generally a transactional tool, and focused more on mobilizing for change in the form of visible power. Organizing itself holds other ways to build power which should be utilized as well).
The most powerful way we’ve seen ToC play its essential role in campaigns is in communicating the value of this exchange between individuals desiring a change and an organization that could help make that change possible. If an individual cannot see that their actions stand a reasonable enough chance of actually being a part of making that change, it is likely they will not willingly give that which is being asked of them by the campaign.
The majority of times we’ve seen recruitment issues in a campaign, a lack of ToC (or its transparency to supporters) has been the culprit. This can be caused by a large number of issues. If the objective is too unrealistic to achieve - especially when the ask seems unlikely to help - for example “sign a petition to end global hunger,” people are unlikely to see the value in their participation and thus not engage (unless it strikes a chord as a statement for other reasons, such as in the midst of a particularly egregious context). If it is not clear how their action would play a role in making the change because it seems disconnected from the objective (“tweet your anger to end global hunger”), they are also unlikely to engage. Finally, even if a ToC is present, if it’s not communicated to supporters, they have no mechanism for seeing the value of their action. It is important, then, to communicate the value of a supporter’s action as part of a larger strategy - something that at times can be challenging when other parts of the strategy might need to be less public to be effective.
Be Authentic with Your Theory of Change
Many organizations have recognised the importance of having a ToC and implemented it procedurally in their campaign planning process. Too often, however, this becomes just another item on a checklist without actual commitment to developing a ToC that is realistic and thought through. We know that often in campaign teams there is a need for refreshment and a new approach to working with ToC. Sometimes using a new framework (like the one below) or bringing in outside people might be helpful.
James Whelan of the Change Agency offers a good guideline to employ in crafting the structure of a basic ToC that keeps things honest:
“IF (we do these things) THEN (this will change) BECAUSE (some persuasive causal logic). Put another way, IF (tactics/activities) THEN (political outcome or change) BECAUSE (why?).” - James Whelan, from “Theories of Change”, The Commons Library.
Lack of believable and specific ToC doesn’t just set your campaign up for less likelihood of actually winning - it can also result in potential supporters not engaging and diminish trust between the organization and existing supporters. Supporters can smell ToC that isn’t authentic a hundred meters away. People tend to be able to sense when a petition is launched just to build a list without any real hope of actually changing things, and the recruitment for such campaigns in our experience tends to be a struggle. (Petitions alone, it’s worth noting, rarely change big things).
Good Planning for Tough Campaigns
Progressive campaignings by definition challenge power injustices, which means we are constantly the underdogs in an asymmetric power struggle. We must not just exert power randomly, but be pretty clever about how we do so. Having a ToC helps us push through the thinking required to see what campaign design is required to coordinate the power we have in order to impact our targets.
In the case of a petition, for example, we want to think through who to direct the petition towards that could succeed in making the change needed, how many signatures would actually be required to move this person's decision-making, and in fact, if a petition itself could actually sway their thinking. If not, alternative or additional actions to influence the target need to be considered. Observing what might influence that person to make them change is going to be key. Maybe a petition is a step in our ToC to draw some attention but needs to be part of a bigger plan to show that the public is upset, to garner enough media attention to influence them or to be part of a mix of actions such as leading supporters to speak at a series of public meetings where the individual is shown that their voting constituency is upset enough about this specific issue to influence their potential re-election to office. (As is thoroughly explored in “Prisms of the People” and based on John Mark Hansen’s book “Gaining Access” and his case study of farm lobby study, one important key for organizations to actually exert power and influence representatives is the ability to consistently turn out a base, not just show one time that something is important.)
If the target is corporate, impacting their bottom line through potential consumer purchasing decisions might play a role, but, in developing a ToC, it should be asked how many consumers would you actually need to impact to catch the attention of a CEO or other decision maker within the business? It's likely more than a small campaign can muster, which is why consumer boycotts are rarely successful without an organized movement behind them. It’s important to question if shareholders are a better target on which to exert influence in a specific case.
In many cases our campaigns are won when the target can see clearly that it will cost them more resources to fight us than to make the change. Where this is our opportunity, this should factor into our campaign plan, and creating an authentic ToC will hold us to it.
Oftentimes our campaigns win on the sheer ingenuity of their approach. A new way of showing power will often serve to ambush the targets and throw them off kilter, which is why creativity and cleverness in a ToC can be so powerful. (Often the best innovations will come from involving supporters themselves in the strategic process of designing the campaign - many minds are usually better than a few,and their knowledge of what moves targets is often incredible). That said, once a specific approach has been used repeatedly, the targets having their power challenged to move them towards change will tend to learn to adapt, making the specific ToC less valuable over time. Holders of status quo power function a bit like a virus mutating to survive.
Systemically we’ve seen decreasing results from digital tactics overtime for this exact reason. Pressure applied on social media that worked during the times of the Arab Spring simply doesn’t achieve the same results today, and petition-based tactics see less and less real world impact each year. We must keep developing new ways to win.
Accepting this reality and applying a ToC that pushes innovation and creativity can be the key to winning the change we seek.
What Makes a Good ToC
A few keys we believe are essential to having a successful ToC:
- Not overly complicated: for your team and supporters to believe it, they need to understand it.
- Not gimmicky: creative is good but too ‘out there’ or cheesy can backfire.
- Transparent and clearly communicated: Every ‘ask’ is a chance for supporters to partner with you on your campaign, but to do so, they must understand their role in it.
- Authentic and credible: it should be developed based on the realities of the situation. Don’t ask people to believe something you yourself do not.
- Achievable: Long shots are sometimes worth it, and failure is a part of campaigning. But aiming change a target outside the reach of an organization’s current resources (or resources it believes it could garner) can also be a waste of time.
- Testable: Ideally you should be able to test against your ToC through a campaign to assess your progress, effectiveness of actions, need to adjust, as well as for evaluation and learning after the campaign in preparation for the next one.
We have seen the practice of working with a ToC on every level of decision-making make huge impacts on organizations and campaigns we’ve worked with. More than a consultant buzz-word, having the right understanding of ToC and its potential has the possibility to transform the work on our people-powered campaigns.
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