THEORY OF CHANGE – food for thought


THEORY OF CHANGE – food for thought

3 min.

Our office, the Office of Evaluation of FAO, will hold its learning week next month, and the main focus will be on the Theory of Change.
So I thought it would be a right time to share my thoughts on this topic.    

What is a Theory of Change?

I looked around the web to find out what definitions are used.

Below is my favourite, from

"A theory of change explains how activities are understood to produce a series of results that contribute to achieving the final intended impacts. It can be developed for any level of intervention – an event, a project, a programme, a policy, a strategy or an organization".

At our office, a Theory of Change typically visualizes ‘how the project is supposed to work’.

Is our Theory of Change useful?

The final output of our evaluation exercise is the Management Response, which is a document summarizing how the decision makers plan to react to the evaluation recommendations. Therefore, the Theory of Change should help provide good recommendations.

What constitute good recommendations? My definition of good recommendations, in the context of our work, is a ‘realistic and impactful action plan’.

How can we improve our Theory of Change?

We want to design a Theory of Change that helps identify an action plan that is realistic and impactful. Below is my suggestions on how to design the Theory of Change that meets this need.


The Theory of Change should be grounded on relevant social science theories, which already identify the likely causal relationships/impacts under different assumptions. The Theory of Change should identify the linkages and gaps between the project concept and the social science theory in the technical area directly related to the evaluation.

Also, the Theory of Change should be linked to the economic theory, which suggests the possible welfare effects to different actors/stakeholders. The economic analyses help understand the linkage between the project level outcomes to the country’s higher national/sector level development objectives. This linkage is important because it determines whether the successful implementation of project activities actually brings about development impact.


The Theory of Change should be aligned to the given context. In our work, this usually means the socio-economic, policy and institutional context of a country. We must understand the context to make the action plan feasible and sustainable. This means that we should conduct context analysis before designing the Theory of Change.


The Management Response discusses ‘actions’ so the Theory of Change should focusing on behavioral changes.

The Theory of Change should show: (1) where the trigger points for the behavioral changes exist?; (2) what kind of behavioral changes are needed?; and (3) who are the agents of change?

To ensure the impact, it is important to include the key decision makers (e.g. policy makers, financial managers) in the ‘agents of change’ in addition to the project’s direct stakeholders. 

Check list

Here’s my check list for an useful Theory of Change:

1 • Is the Theory of Change linked to relevant social science theories?

  • Theory of the technical area(s) directly related to the evaluation
  • Economic theory (welfare effects)

2 • Is the Theory of Change aligned to the given context?

  • Socio-economic
  • Policy (linkages to sector/national plans)
  • Institutional (including financial aspect)

3 • Does the Theory of Change focus on behavioral changes?

  • Actions (what)
  • Trigger points (where)
  • Agents of change (who)

In sum…

Visualizing ‘how the project supposed to work’ in the Theory of Change is a good start. But we should also make sure that the Theory of Change will help us design realistic and impactful action plans.

Doing this requires more time and energy, but it is certainly worth it.