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Posted by Sarah Brown on 05 Apr '18

Be really clear about what you offer

How a clear Theory of Change is critical for success whatever type of organisation you are

In the charity and social enterprise sector understanding your ‘theory of change’ i.e. how you change lives, is expected by many funders and social investors but in the business sector it is not something that I have ever come across.

I think understanding your theory of change has a value whatever type of organisation you are. For a charity clarifying the theory of change means moving beyond a passion to do good to understanding how you change lives, what the impact is and how you track/prove that impact.

For any organisations there are four reasons to work out your theory of change

Reason 1 It reduces the danger of being all things to all people

A theory of change requires that you think about who you are serving and what it is valuable to change in their lives. This means you either need to focus on a limited set of people or on a limited type of change.

In the charity world Cancer UK focuses on research into cancer not every disease that might kill people and MacMillan nurses don’t look after anybody who is ill, just those with cancer. In both cases this means they get a lot of support because it is really clear what they do, any organisation can benefit from that clarity; generally it is called finding your niche in the commercial work NB if you are to be successful this will also fit with your passion.

Reason 2 It requires you to be really clear about what you offer

A theory of change is like a scientific theory

“you do x causing y to happen which has the result of z”

By writing it down it generally becomes clear that you can actually increase your impact by adding ingredients.

For years we have used this general theory of change:


One of our tools “the Principles Prioritiser©” illustrates how being specific about what you want to achieve can help in service development and innovation as I illustrate below (you can access the digital version of the tool here):

Reason 3 It allows you to test what you do

Like a scientific experiment you can test a theory of change looking at each part of the equation giving you data to improve

Reason 4 It provides you with marketing messages

Just like Cancer UK a clear theory of change gives you strong messages and your testing gives you evidence that what you do works

If you found this interesting these blogs may interest you:

How a clear purpose can even create success in a difficult market

5 ways to stop wasting money on advertising

Why values are the key foundation of a strong corporate culture