Learn about Theory of Change

AmeriCorps VISTA
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VISTAs serve because they want to make a difference. It’s natural for you to want to know how your activities this year will lead to long-term benefits for those in poverty. Understanding the Theory of Change that guides your project will help you make the important connection between your activities and poverty reduction.

“Theory of Change” is another term for the process of clearly stating a problem or need, developing goals that address that need, defining the interventions or activities that will lead to meeting those goals, and detailing the outcomes that will be achieved along the way. A Theory of Change can be visualized this way:

Theory of Change

Innovations for Poverty Action, the nonprofit that created this graphic, uses the following definitions to describe what organizations do when they create a Theory of Change.

  • Theory of change: A map of a program or intervention, connecting program activities with the goods and services it will produce (outputs) and showing how these link to the intended results (outcomes) which measure the program’s impact.
  • Assumptions: The conditions that must be in place for a certain part of a program to work as expected.
  • Activities: The day-to-day tasks an organization must undertake in order to provide a product or service.
  • Outputs: The products or services produced by program activities; deliverables. The provision of outputs is typically under the control of the program and is related to the quantity and quality of program implementation.
  • Outcomes: The intended results of a program; the change it seeks to create. Outcomes are typically outside control of the organization. This where the “theory” comes in; the organization has reason to believe that the provision of outputs should lead to the intended outcomes, but key assumptions will need to hold and outside factors will also influence these outcomes. Often programs will have several linked outcomes they are seeking to achieve.
  • Impact: The word “impact” is used in many different ways; we view impacts as the changes a program seeks to make—impacts are the measure of program outcomes.

In applying for a VISTA project, your organization articulated a specific Theory of Change (although not every project application uses this term). The application described a poverty-related need (or problem) in the community. It went on to detail how VISTA resources (or inputs) would address this need through activities and other outputs that lead to long-term positive change (or outcomes) for low-income beneficiaries and the community.

Your OSOT, VAD, and interactions with your supervisor will help clarify these elements of your project’s Theory of Change, and give you a better understanding of how your efforts relate to the impact the organization wants to achieve. 

Think about the following:

  • Is the problem/need your project is tackling clear to you?
  • How about the outcomes your project aims to achieve?