photo by David Clode

So, you feel like you’re out there doing good work – but how do you actually measure and prove that you’re doing good work? By creating a theory of change, a tool that will help define your program or organization’s overall strategy for creating a positive impact.


A theory of change is an organizational tool that will help you define, measure, and communicate what success looks like to both internal and external stakeholders. In the simplest terms, it’s all about “How do we get there from here?”

There’s a general assumption that nonprofits and other youth programs want to “do good” in the world and make a positive impact on the communities and constituents they serve. A theory of change simply outlines how this impact is defined, what work it will take to get there, how it relates to your overall mission, and what success will look like along the way. It also allows you to not only look forward toward the work you want to do, but also look back at what you’ve already done to see how closely it matches your goals and vision.

Want to learn more? Check out these three videos on the TYO website:

photo by Boris Smokrovic


Before you begin to hammer out the actual details of a theory of change, it’s important to consider your answers to a few questions that will help keep the process streamlined and organized.

  • Why are you developing a theory of change? Why is a theory of change important to your organization or program at this time? Is there external or internal demand? Are there other changes or events occurring within your program or organization that spurred this decision, and how will those changes affect this process?
  • Who will be involved? Instead of asking one person to shoulder the responsibility of creating a theory of change, it’s important to create a team (ideally from different parts of your organization or program) that can offer a variety of perspectives and input. Also know whether you want to involve anyone from outside the organization – a consultant or external stakeholders, for example.
  • How will you solicit feedback? It’s important to consider feedback from both internal and external stakeholders not just once you’ve drafted a theory of change, but also throughout the process to ensure everyone is on the same page and in support. There are many ways to solicit feedback; surveys, webinars, conference calls, and meetings are just a few.
  • What is your timeline? How quickly do you hope to assemble the team, create a first draft, solicit feedback, and approve the final theory of change document? Think about this before jumping into the process, so that you have benchmarks to keep it moving along.

Throughout the process, you should also remember to:

  • Make sure the theory of change ties in to your organization’s work and overall mission.
  • Make sure that both the overall development timeline and the specific actionable items listed in the theory of change are actually within reach.
  • Make sure you have buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders.

photo by Igor Ovsyannykov


There is no single “right” way to create your theory of change – some are brief while some are lengthy; some are written out, while others are rendered graphically. However, there are some good overall rules to keep in mind when you’re in the development stage:

  1. Identify your overarching vision for the theory of change. What is the overall impact you hope to have with your work, within your community, and/or with your program participants? This is the broadest statement of your theory of change; each component will get progressively more specific from here.
  2. Identify desired outcomes. Here, you begin breaking down that overall vision into smaller chunks. Work backwards to identify which outcomes or goals, both large-scale and small-scale, will contribute to meeting these conditions. How will each of these goals impact the overall vision?
  3. Identify how you’ll reach these outcomes. Designate specific strategies that can be used to achieve each of these outcomes. The basic concept is that you’ll be able to say that “If we do X, then Y will happen.”

Ready to give it a try? Visit the Theory of Change Path on the TYO website for a suite of resources, including a Theory of Change template that you can customize to create a graphic representation of the process for your program or organization.