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Home / Resources / News / Developing a theory of change

Developing a theory of change

In my previous post, I described why #outcomefest is focusing on how we tackle systemic issues to achieve common outcomes. A different way of talking about outcomes is to think of impact and value, but what do these mean?

The head honcho of the @hublaunchpad @dompotter describes the difference between social impact and social value best in this article for the @guardiansocent:

“While social impact is…about…measuring direct cause-and-effect relationships between a specific set of activities and outcomes…social value is about…what difference has been made to society as a whole. Social value is about a systemic, network effect rather than the isolated impact on a defined set of individuals.”

“Social impact is…concerned with providing a snapshot of a point in time and measuring what happened and to whom it happened. Social value is about context…providing a narrative for impact which allows us to see beyond distinct events to give us a richer, deeper understanding of not just what happened to whom, but also why it happened and the implications of this.

As @tobyblume and @annarandle highlight in their Social Value Commissioning Framework for @collaborateins, it’s important to move beyond just asking people to define what they need, or even what they can bring to the table and to instead start a discussion on what people value.

This is critical for people on both sides of the fence. For those working within public services, it’s about understanding how the Social Value Act can help rethink how they procure & commission services.

It’s much more than that though, by starting by what people value and by what change you want to affect across a local area, you can better

  • Visualise and anticipate the interdependencies between individual priorities through systems mapping

When you look at the media, you get the feeling that decisions about services are based on a “chop or not”  culture, with councils either caving into demands by those groups with the most electoral or economic power or salami slicing every service to avoid pleasing or angering anyone too much.

How about working with the different stakeholders to map the systemic issues?

Systems Mapping


  • Show and describe the journey that you see change taking place through theories of change

How many times have you heard new narratives about how governments will enact change – from the “big society” in the UK to “doocracy” in the Netherlands. Councils too have their local flavours, often caricatured by the media, from Easy Jet to John Lewis.

Often what happens is that there is a big conversation just after the launch with people getting on different sides of the fence to champion or criticise the slogan. On the institution’s side, there will be flagship initiatives that will aim to prove what the brave new world will look like.

Then there will be a succession of blog posts, pamphlets and events using the slogan to try and interpret what the slogan means to their line of work. Of course, it’s easier to talk about the “big stories” like the flagship initiatives than the many “small stories” of people enacting the change.

But if there is no theory of change which describes how you want the change to happen and how you will get there, the flagship initiatives rub up against the existing system, with all the effort dedicated to smoothing out the friction.

How about working with communities to work out what change people value and how they want to affect it? 

We’ll be discussing this and more at #outcomefest.  If you haven’t signed up to the event, do so now. Even better, suggest a session you’d like to run on the day!

Theory of Change