Design and Conceptualize

This section is meant to help those designing a water+ program to think through high-level objectives, mechanisms for change and the role of CARE in water+ interventions. It is especially indicated for the program design stage. Central to this section is the use of a theory of change to set a commonly agreed blueprint for the change process.

Theory of Change Overview

A theory of change is a visualization or explanation of how stakeholders intend to enact change within their community or area of intervention. It is an outcome-focused alternative to the logical framework. Development organizations are using theory of change more commonly now than a decade ago as it more accurately represents the complex, non-linear nature of change (Davies, 2004; James, 2011). A review of theory of change in development work revealed that there is not one commonly accepted definition of what a theory of change is, nor is there a set methodology (Vogel, 2012) however most definitions include the concept of connecting activities to their outcomes (Stein & Valters, 2012). Creating a theory of change involves coordination and collaboration of all the stakeholders of the project or program, often including the community itself. By coming together as a group, stakeholders must discuss and agree upon their long-term goal and which preconditions are necessary for achieving that goal. In the end, the short-, mid-, and long-term goals, along with their relevant interventions, are depicted in a pathway of change map. A successful theory of change will be a specific, measureable description of a social change process with clear indicators of success. In this way, the theory of change is an invaluable program planning tool.

The rising popularity of the theory of change is due to its multi-purpose nature. During the lifespan of the program, the theory of change can be used to engage stakeholders, create an action plan, demonstrate plans to funders, implement and guide program activities, and report back to funders and stakeholders (Center for Theory of Change, n.d.). Theory of change is a “fresh eyes” approach to development. Using a different process and vocabulary and starting from thinking about what change is desired (instead of which activities are desired), theory of change allows stakeholders to approach development differently than before. Most apropos to the purposes of this document, reviews on the theory of change by Rick Davies and Isabel Vogel found that development agencies mainly use it for purposes of monitoring and evaluation (2004; 2012; respectively). Both reviews found that the benefits of using a theory of change are applicable to a variety of different types of development programming.

Why Organizations Use Theory of Change

There are several benefits to creating a theory of change. First, the process helps clarify the goals and expectations that individual stakeholders have (Anderson, n.d.). The group may think that they are on the same page, but several different pathways for change may be revealed during discussion. In addition, the theory of change process will encourage the group to agree on one long-term goal before moving forward. This process helps organize the components of a potential program and encourages the group to assess whether their goals are realistic and whether their underlying assumptions are plausible. Importantly, creating a theory of change provides the opportunity for stakeholders to review what parts of the change process they can and cannot influence, and, therefore, where they can have the greatest impact. Overall, the theory of change provide an organization with a clear hypothesis of what change is expected as a result of what actions, a visual representation of how it is expected to occur, a framework for future evaluations, and a powerful communication tool.

Spheres of Influence.jpg
Figure 1: Spheres depicting what an intervention can and cannot directly control

A review done by Cathy James (from the organization Comic Relief) found that many organizations and institutions are beginning to use this methodology more and more frequently. This review had to be conducted mostly through direct dialogues with the organizations themselves because most of them are not publicly documenting their use of TOC (James, 2011). Generally the review found that organizations appreciate the theory of change as a methodology has gained favor in the development sector because it has more flexibility than the logical framework. Organizations reported to James that the logical framework has become a rigid framework required by donors and funders, which has made it a less useful tool when it comes to fulfilling the needs of their own organization. Alternatively, the theory of change, when used voluntarily by the institution itself allowed for flexible and adaptive use that is helpful throughout planning, implementation, evaluating, reporting, and fundraising stages.

How to create a Theory of Change

There are six steps to follow in order to create a theory of change (TOC) (Center for Theory of Change, n.d.). The process must be deliberate and can take several hours or even days. It can be conducted in the proposal design stage or early in the program. Also, realize that the TOC should be a living document; as time progresses and you learn new things about your program and the context within which you are working, you can change the document to better reflect your program and its realistic impact (Harris, 2013).

1. Identify your long-term goal.
Stakeholders should discuss clearly what they would like to see as the long-term impact in their community. It is very important that everyone agrees on this goal before moving on to the next steps.

2. Conduct backwards mapping and connect outcomes.
This is the bulk of the theory of change planning stage. What has to happen before your main goal can be met? Keep in mind that these are contextual conditions that must exist, not actions which must be taken. The group should not be planning interventions or activities at this stage. This step can be broken down into group discussions or workshops that span a couple of days or longer. Participants will need to start with their long-term goal and then work backwards to decide how that goal can be achieved. This will create a framework that tells a story that is helpful for when program planning begins. Short-term and mid-term outcomes (or “preconditions”) will be added to the map and moved around until the group agrees that their story is “complete.”

This process should invoke a lot of discussion and debate among stakeholders because it will identify individuals’ priorities, expectations and assumptions. Make sure at each step that everyone agrees with the outcome, its underlying logic, and associated assumptions before cementing it into the pathways of change map. Doing this correctly will increase productivity, and more importantly, accountability. Continue to add outcomes to the map, differentiating between those that will happen naturally as a result of a related precondition and those that will be a result of a planned activity (identified in a future step) (Anderson, n.d.; Center for Theory of Change, n.d.). See template below:

3. Complete the outcomes framework.
Once you have all of your outcomes listed on your map, make sure that there are arrows that clearly identify which preconditions are required for which outcomes.

4. Identify assumptions.
Assumptions are truths that must already exist in order for your program to work. Will your theory of change only work if the government is willing to partner? Will change only happen if there is a concurrent program addressing other needs? Think about the context within which your program must exist in order to achieve your long-term goal.

5. Develop indicators.
Your indicators should address target populations, time period and threshold of success. When developing indicators, keep in mind who is changing; how many are expected to succeed; how much is enough; and by when this achievement needs to happen.

6. Identify interventions.
In traditional program planning, many organizations start with this step. In a theory of change, interventions are only identified after you have visualized and prioritized your pathways of change. (This is one of the most important and beneficial differences between the theory of change methodology and a logical framework.) Now that your desired outcomes are clearly stated, what must your organization do to accomplish those results? Always keep in mind the assumptions addressed in earlier steps.


You can test the completeness of your theory of change by checking to make sure it addresses these six main questions (Forti, 2012):

1. Who benefits from the program (target group)?
2. What are the benefits created by the program (results)?
3. How long will it take to achieve these benefits (time period)?
4. How will the program achieve these benefits (interventions, activities, strategies, resources, etc.)?
5. Where will the program take place (geographic and cultural context)?
6. Why is it believed that change will happen in the manner predicted (assumptions)?

Common Mistakes

There are several errors that groups can make when creating their theory of change. For one, the Theory should depict what impact is realistically expected, not something you hope you can change. In addition, the theory of change should drive which interventions are planned and what the program looks like, not the other way around. Creating a theory of change is less helpful if it is only designed to reflect what is already happening. The process should be a tool to help stakeholders think critically about programming approaches and overall strategy, whether you are planning a new program, or hoping to improve a program that has already begun. Furthermore, it is important to always consider the external context in which the program is taking place. What other services and programs are being offered in the community? Confirm the plausibility of the theory of change by doing background research. Have others successfully done what you are planning on doing (Forti, 2012)?

Be sure that you are creating a theory of change that is measureable. A theory that is not measureable has not operationalized the theory by articulating indicators for the inputs, outputs, and outcomes that should be tracked (Forti, 2012).

Lastly, know that things change. Be prepared to tweak the theory of change along the way. Are the assumptions bearing out as predicted? Do other assumptions need to be vocalized? In addition, although you are testing your progress and impacts according to the theory of change’s indicators and assumptions, it is important to also test whether or not your theory of change is the most valid approach to change. For example, if the program and coordinating theory of change revolve around increasing accountability and transparency of community governance of water sources in order to increase the water point’s sustainability, it is important to do two things:
1.) Monitor and evaluate the relationship between governance and sustainability.
2.) Test the assumption that governance is the most impactful strategy towards sustainability. This may include exploring other programmatic methods that could affect sustainability.
If you follow these practices, your organization’s TOC will be more productive in inspiring impact (Forti, 2012).

Adapting the Water+ TOC

The CARE Water Team created a high-level theory of change in 2010 to guide our global work. As a global template, it lacks the contextual conditions that would enable the mapping of specific pathways of change described in previous sections; however it can be used as the basis of such mapping, as can be seen in the below illustration.

Water+ Theory of Change Domains

Water+ ToC topline 1.jpg

Domain 1: Secure and sustainable access to WASH services
Domain 1 breakdown - Water+ ToC.jpg

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