Developing a theory of change is a really valuable process for bringing together teams and aligning on vision, outcomes and activities, but it can also be a really valuable product. However we don’t get as much value out the product as we could, because after investing a lot of effort in creating it, we tend to print or save a final copy and then safely deposit it in a drawer (or Sharepoint folder). You’re lucky if we keep looking at them, let alone update them, show them to other people or learn from each other. But what if there was an open searchable repository of theories of change?
The first thing a theory of change library could do is answer the ‘who is doing something like this’ question. This is a question we come up against again and again at NPC in different guises, and one that’s essential for taking a systems approach to theory of change. Whether you’re a funder supporting a field, a philanthropist considering how to best give or a charity developing their strategy within a broader context, you need to know who the organisations in your sector are and what they’re doing.
A database of existing theories of change would also help when constructing a new one: you’d be able to see what other people have done and the evidence base they’re using to support their assumptions. A library might even be able to make intelligent suggestions to help you locate relevant evidence if there was enough information in the database. By integrating evidence references we’d also be able to look at the role of evidence in supporting theories of change across many organisations, identifying where is it used and where the biggest gaps are.
Finally, by getting the theory of change out of the filing cupboard and on to the web, it’s more likely to become a living, breathing document and tool that gets reviewed, validated and updated. And a theory of change library could provide the foundation to build a set of online tools to do just this.
What might this be?
The theory of change library would be an open, freely searchable repository of organisational theories of change. Some of the elements of this would be:
- an interface for documenting and uploading an organisation or programme theory of change
- mechanisms for incentivisation/recognition of contribution – for example a free theory of change builder interface might offer enough value to encourage contribution
- a database of contributed theories of change
- a semantic framework and data standard for theory of change
- functionality to reference of evidence that supports causal mechanisms for outcomes within a theory of change
- documented open APIs to add to and search the repository
- integration of third party theory of change platforms to allow seamless contribution from them
- mapping/visualisation of the aggregate dataset to allow exploration by topic and geography