Theory of Change: A thinking and action approach to navigate in the complexity of social change processes

Iñigo Retolaza Eguren

Created 05/15/2012

Tools and Templates


The focus and the contents of the guide emerged from the synthesis of my learning as Theory of Change design process facilitator which has involved social change agents from different Latin American countries. My learning process has been consolidated from different sources and experiences over recent years. Special mention should be made to the learning space offered by Hivos, an international NGO based in the Netherlands. The opportunity that Hivos gave me to facilitate different Theory of Change workshops with some of its counterparts from Southern and Central America was a rich and intense source of learning and inspiration. In the same way, my professional relationship with the Democratic Dialogue Regional Project (DDRP) run by UNDP enabled me to consolidate another important learning space. This time from an action-research approach around dialogue processes applied to different areas: national dialogues focused on public policy formulation and monitoring as well as legislative proposals, facilitating national and regional dialogue spaces on different topics, strengthening capacities of political and social leaders from different countries of the region in dialogue issues, etc.  These two areas of experience and knowledge, not being the only ones, are the main source underpinning the contents of the guide presented here.

The document is aimed at the wealth of agents linked to social change and development processes. That is, bilateral donors, grassroots male and female leaders, social and political leaders, NGO officials, community grassroots organizations, social movements, public decision-makers, and other agents involved in social change processes. 

It should be pointed out that the Theory of Change focus applied to social change processes seeks to be a thinking-action alternative to other more rigid approaches and planning logics. This in the understanding that as we live in a complex and, at times, conflictive era, we need more flexible instruments that enable our actions to be planned and monitored in complex, emerging and uncertain contexts; always considering a flexible and not a rigid perspective.

In general terms, the guide summarizes the core of the contents and methodological steps that are implemented in a Theory of Change design workshop. As is already known, this thinking-action focus is also applied to institutional coaching processes and to designing social change and development programs.

The first part of the guide describes some theoretical elements to be considered when designing a Theory of Change applied to social change processes. It is obvious that there are many other aspects that have to be taken into account. Nevertheless, some of the ones that I consider to be fundamental based on my experience are summarized here. The second part of the document describes the basic methodological steps to be implemented throughout the process when designing a Theory of Change. In order to reinforce this practical part, a Theory of Change workshop route is attached hereto hoping it will help to illustrate the dynamics to be developed in a workshop of these characteristics.

I would like to stress that this guide has to be taken as a living document which is in constant evolution. I therefore invite the reader to go beyond what is proposed here both in methodological and theoretical terms.

Finally, I would like to express my desire that the guide be used to improve the performance of those organizations and individuals involved in social change processes aimed at helping to establish a fairer and more just world.

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