The ultimate goal of every initiative designed to generate social innovations is to “move our world closer to an ideal, better, improved one” (Valerio Melandri, 2017). A world finally made better through the implementation of projects meant to address specific social causes – human rights, health, education, nature, just to name a few – and undertaken by either public institutions, social enterprises, non-profit organizations, or joint collaborations among them.
In order to accomplish such missions, nowadays different types of changemakers (policy makers, social innovation practitioners, entrepreneurs, activists, etc.) are paying increasing attention to new methodologies, techniques and approaches to more effectively tackle and solve complex societal issues. Take the growing interest in Systems Thinking as an example, or the application of Lean Startup principles to the social enterprise sector (the so-called “Lean Impact“, a concept developed by Ann Mei Cheng).
Among these various approaches and tools, Theory of Change is certainly among the most important and discussed ones
THEORY OF CHANGE: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Theory of Change (ToC) is definitely not a new methodology: some scholars claim the term was first coined during the 1990s, while some others state it dates back even further (late 1950s or so). Nevertheless, only in recent times we experienced a growing interest around this tool. But precisely, what do we mean by “Theory of Change”?
In a nutshell, Theory of Change consists of a design approach that first starts by identifying the long-term impact goals an organization intends to generate, and then maps and plans backwards all the outcomes, outputs, interventions/activities and inputs/resources that are necessary to achieve the long-term impact goal. Check the graph below for a rough, simplified representation of the tool.
To put it in one sentence: planning looking backwards, delivering moving forward.
Now, for those who might be less familiar with the tool, Theory of Change emphasizes the profound difference between “outputs” and “outcomes”.
On one hand, when we talk about “outputs” we usually refer to the so-called “breadth of impact”, addressing the following questions: “what is the scale of the intervention?” and “how many people have been served/reached by it?”. Outputs can thus be seen as short-term results and the indicators used to measure them primarily focus on quantitative data (i.e. total number of products/services delivered, multiplied by the total number of people reached).
On the other hand, “outcomes” refer to the so-called “depth of impact”, addressing the following questions: “how did beneficiaries benefit from the intervention? ” and “how did their lives change/improve thanks to it?”. Outcomes can hence be considered as medium-term results and explore qualitative (more than quantitative) data.
So, as Acumen fellows would sum it up: outputs relate to breadth of the intervention, outcomes relate to its depth. Bear this in mind for later.
THEORY OF CHANGE: ITS BENEFITS
Because of the rigorous, participatory process through which an organization builds (or, at least, should build) a Theory of Change, using this tool comes with multiple benefits. As a matter of fact, a well-planned ToC can help:
- Align the team on commonly agreed objectives and goals;
- Identify critical issues before implementing certain initiatives, thus being able to plan in advance actions to overcome future criticalities;
- Avoid wasting resources (monetary and non-monetary) on interventions that do not contribute to achieving long-term impact goals, hence giving a better focus to the interventions and meliorating the overall outcomes;
- Monitor activities and measure the impact generated, crafting sets of metrics and indicators to evaluate programs and interventions;
- Communicate strategies, roadmaps and action plans not just to internal teams, but also to other external stakeholders, for instance partners and collaborators, local communities, institutions, potential sponsors and donors.
In light of the above, ToC is often seen as a tool to be used by board directors and project managers only. However, because of the benefits it can bring to external communication activities, fundraisers too might start to consider using Theory of Change in fundraising campaigns. Let’s have a look why so.
FUNDRAISING: A NARRATIVE SHIFT
Quite recently, I came across direct mailings, TV campaigns and face-to-face fundraisers asking me to support their projects – accommodations for homeless people in my city, scholarships for unprivileged youth, wells or ecosan toilets for some rural region in a remote country. In some cases, I decided to make a donation and support their causes, despite the fact that the narrative was often quite the same: “(..) our organization already built this, now help us build that“.
Even though I didn’t ask about their action plan and the specific activities they were planning to carry out through the donation, I was still left in doubt regarding the concrete, tangible benefits their organizations brought to the beneficiaries. The results achieved beyond the mere implementation of the project, the sole intervention. Basically, I wanted to learn about the outcomes, rather than the outputs.
I often find people, particularly those who are engaging with an organization for the first time, not to care too much about the outputs – just to mention previous examples, the number of wells or ecosan toilets built, the occupancy rate of temporary accommodation for homeless people, the total value of all the scholarships awarded. In fact, people care about the tangible gains in beneficiaries’ lives, they care about the outcomes that those wells, ecosan toilets, accommodations and scholarships led (or will lead) to.
And please, do not get me wrong: I am not talking about organization values, neither about vision or mission statements (nowadays, even for-profit organizations selling laptops or shoes seem to have socially-oriented ones!). I am talking about how a specific project, a specific intervention, is designed to concretely affect, improve and change people’s lives.
In other words, it is all about making a narrative shift, from “output-focused” towards “outcome-oriented”. But how to do that? Theory of Change might help fundraisers doing that.
As previously seen, Theory of Change allows to make a clear distinction between outputs and outcomes, reinforcing the idea that the reach of impact (namely, the outputs) is of secondary importance to the depth of impact (namely, the outputs). In a way, outputs show us how efficient a certain organization really is; instead, people need and want to know how much it is effective in achieving its goals and bringing positive changes. Think about it for a moment: if you had 100€ to donate, would you rather give it to an organization listing the number of projects it plans to carry out, or to an organization telling you how it plans to improve the lives of its beneficiaries through its interventions?
OUTCOME-ORIENTED FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGNS: FEW EXAMPLES
Applying Theory of Change in fundraising campaigns could possibly be one of the best ways for fundraisers to sharpen and refine their messages, to make them more relevant and effective, as this tool would help them focus their communications on the intervention’s outcomes rather than on its outputs. And again: there is nothing wrong with the latter approach, it just feels incomplete and unfit to completely fulfill donors’ expectations.
Some non-profit organization already experimented this paradigm shift and started moving steps in this direction. Here are few examples of organizations that already embedded, to some extent, “outcome-oriented” narratives in their campaigns:
Charity:water, a NPO providing safe, clean drinking water for people in developing countries, launched back in 2011 this campaign to raise funds for installing new drilling rigs in Northern Ethiopia.
It is interesting to note that during the first half of the video the focus shifts from the reach of the interventions (i.e. number of drilling rigs shipped worldwide) towards the depth of the positive changes that were made possible. Thanks to Charity:water, women were no longer forced to walk hours to collect drinking water, but were enabled instead to start small businesses and take care of their families. Similarly, thanks to the ease of access to clean water, students contracted less diseases and were able to attend school and undertake activities with their peers.
As you can see, this is a first attempt of an outcome-oriented fundraising campaign: the focus is not on how many drills Charity:water shipped, or how many people used the newly installed water wells, but instead it’s on how those drills, those wells, impacted people’s lives, changing them for the better.
“Dear World.. Yours, Cambridge” is a fundraising initiative launched in 2015 to support University of Cambridge. Up until today, this campaign raised more than £1,7 billion.
Throughout their videos and email communications, the underlying message of the whole campaign is that donors should support Cambridge not because of the achievements accomplished by its students (i.e. Nobel Prizes, Olympic Medals, new scientific discoveries), but rather because of the way those students contributed to change society. Quoting from one of their most famous videos, “(..) the real impact of Cambridge is the effect that it’s had on people’s lives”, a sentence quickly followed by Sheila Roy (one among the first Parkinson’s gene therapy trial participants) claiming that Parkinson’s treatment made her able to write again. Here, we can see that the treatment is one of the outputs of activities carried out inside Cambridge, whereas the effects of Sheila’s life can be considered as part of its outcomes.
For nearly 50 years, Greenpeace has been fighting for environmental justice. Along time, this organization ran several campaigns and petitions focused on protecting animals and nature, including the “Ocean of the Future” campaign (2018).
What I particularly liked in this campaign is that the focus is on long-term, negative risks of not taking action to protect our oceans, such as having children visiting aquariums full of plastics instead of fish. Using this example as best case for “outcome-oriented” narrative might be a bit stretched, but here is the fact: instead of communicating its interventions (outputs), Greenpeace chose to focus on the negative effects on peoples’ lives if no immediate action is taken. So, again, the focus is on the outcomes.
As discussed, changemakers and social innovation practitioners can find several reasons for using Theory of Change within their organizations, either for aligning their teams, designing improved interventions, defining indicators to measure success or crafting more powerful communications. In this last regard, some organizations seem to have already started to focus their narratives on outcomes rather than outputs, and applied (either awarely or unawarely) core principles of Theory of Change in fundraising communication strategies. Because of the benefits it comes with, I believe more and more fundraisers should pay attention to this tool and explore ways to apply Theory of Change in fundraising campaigns. During this time of fierce competition among organizations, markets, platforms, Theory of Change could indeed help fundraisers craft better campaigns, by focusing on what donors are concretely interested in (their contribution to build the “better, improved world” Valerio Melandri referred to), striking the right chords and emphasizing the right reasons for giving. Eventually, this could lead to higher engagement towards the organization and increased donations, although further evidence needs to be collected to demonstrate whether this approach is more effective with new prospects, individual donors, or corporate ones.
In conclusion, applying Theory of Change in fundraising campaigns could help strengthen the relationship between donors and organizations and take it to a new, higher level, a level where donations are no longer driven by the scale and reach of interventions (outputs), but rather by the depth of impact (outcomes).
So, fundraisers, what are the tangible outcomes you plan to achieve and how will your interventions help you change the world for the better?
Marco Cornetto is a project manager and business developer at SocialFare, the first Italian Center for Social Innovation, based in Turin. His main focus is on supporting formal and informal teams refining socially-oriented business ideas and help them develop new, sustainable business models. Marco has an academic background in “Entrepreneurship and Design Thinking for Social Innovation”, and he is currently studying “Fundraising for the Third Sector” at the University of Bologna. Before moving back to Italy, Marco spent his last few years living, working and volunteering Australia, Netherlands, Spain and Vietnam. Check out Marco’s LinkedIn profile for further details about his projects.
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Ann Mei Chang, 2019. “Lean Impact – How to innovate for radically grater social good”, John Wiley & Sons.
Acumen Academy, 2014. “Building an Impact Framework”, in: “Course on Social Impact Analysis”.
Valerio Melandri, 2017. “Fundraising – Il Manuale più completo per fare raccolta fondi”, Edizioni Philanthropy, Maggioli Editore.
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