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Theory of change

How do social entrepreneurs connect their specific business models to broader visions of social impact?

In the previous course in this program, we identified a range of global and local challenges and saw some examples of how social enterprises defined those challenges and their particular contribution toward a solution. Developing a theory of change is one important way that social enterprises plan out how they will address these wider social problems through a specific set of interventions.

A theory of change can be described as a “robust solution strategy” (UnLtd) that outlines in specific, measurable, and contextualized terms the ways in which an organisation will effect social change.

Matthew Forti identifies six critical questions that a theory of change should address:

  1. Who are you seeking to influence or benefit (target population)?
  2. What benefits are you seeking to achieve (results)?
  3. When will you achieve them (time period)?
  4. How will you and others make this happen (activities, strategies, resources, etc.)?
  5. Where and under what circumstances will you do your work (context)?
  6. Why do you believe your theory will bear out (assumptions)?

Crafting a theory of change entails creating a visual and narrative model that brings the answers to these questions together in a systematic way.

UnLtd advises social entrepreneurs to construct their theory of change in terms of a causal relationship in which the organisation’s interventions transform the present (problematic) scenario into the desired state through specific pathways of change. This causal process is built on a set of assumptions, supported by available data, about processes of change within the relevant socio-economic context. It is measured in terms of specific indicators that show progress toward the goal state.

It is important to think of a theory of change not as a static product but as a dynamic process. Changing political and economic climates, for example, might overturn some of the assumptions on which a social enterprise’s theory of change was constructed. In that case, the theory of change should be revised and the pathways of influence reconsidered.

Here are some examples of theories of change:

How do these examples, others that you have identified, or your own social venture model address the core questions for a theory of change? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Social Enterprise: Turning Ideas into Action

Middlesex University Business School

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: