Theories of Change

What’s your theory of a solution to community identified need?
March 2010 Newsletter


This Month’s Online Courses
We are offering our courses ‘From the Ground Up’ and ‘Project Architecture’ again in March; participants from 49 countries are now enrolled in these courses. See what past students have said.

New Video on Developing a Donor Presentation
What are the tangible outputs from our two courses ‘From the Ground Up’ and ‘Project Architecture?’ Each class during 12 weeks of course time is one step toward a completed project design, a presentation for a donor, and a project management plan.

Online Scholarships
In January, thanks to your generosity, we were able to give seven online scholarships. Today, we have three times as many scholarship applicants. Please consider donating a scholarship. Donate.

March Workshop in Guatemala
In March, we will be facilitating a four-day project and proposal development workshop for the Central American and Mexican country directors of US based Ecologic Development Fund. Ecologic works with poor, rural communities to conserve and restore forests and streams in ways that improve people’s lives.

Three New Interns
In February three important people began working with the Center. Michelle Berkowitz of Guatemala and Eric Swedersky of Canada have been working with the Spanish section of our online courses. Chris McFarland from the US has been developing an interactive social component for our website.

What’s your theory of a solution to community identified need?
Developing a theory of how we plan to address the problems discovered last month with the Ten Seed Technique.
Last month, we prioritized a set of community identified problems. Now is your opportunity to develop a theory of how to solve these problems, and to begin exploring specific activities that will fulfill your theory through discussions with colleagues, through your own experience, and through Internet searches.

Sample of prioritized needs that online students have uncovered within their communities:
Income generation, clean water, access to education, poor sanitation, gender equality, migration, lack of vocational skills, chronic diarrhea and malnutrition in small children, lack of roads to villages, marginalization, shelter, food shortages, illiteracy, environmental degradation, drought, lack of irrigation for agriculture, community revitalization, adapting to climate change and overpopulation.

A theory is just that. In the development world it’s called a theory of change; it’s your theory of what changes in behavior or changes in infrastructure will need to be realized to solve a problem. Your theory of change will include the interventions/activities that you are proposing will address problem.

Here is a well developed Problem Statement:
[Problems and underlying causes] (1)
Children from 100 families in four Guatemalan villages are frequently ill with chronic diarrhea caused by little knowledge of health and hygiene, and (2) chronically undernourished caused by little knowledge of nutrition, and a shortage of food reserves which contribute to [Negative Impacts] (a) stunting (reduced physical and mental development) and a reduction of their ability to participate in (b) family/community activities and (c) attend and concentrate in school.

Here are some clues to get you off to a good start
1. The simpler your problem statement is the easier it will be to develop a theory of change.
2. The more information that you can find about project interventions that have shown evidence of having worked to solve your problem the greater the likelihood that:

your theory of change will be a good one
your project will have long-term impact

Investigating if there is a scientific basis that our proposed theory and activities have worked on other projects.
Suppose that you are a mother whose children are suffering, and an unknown organization came to you with a plan to help your children. Wouldn’t you want that plan to work?

Suppose that you are a donor hoping that your donations will fulfill some need. Wouldn’t you want your donations to have an impact?

Suppose that you were a local NGO hoping to improve the lives of your people. Wouldn’t you want to be successful?

Today it is acknowledged that development programs haven’t kept up with increasing need. One of the very simple reasons is that organizations are copying what other organizations are doing without stopping to check if their programs are working and having any lasting impact.

There is an extraordinarily simple solution to this and that is to do a bit of research to see if any scientific studies have been done about the effectiveness of your proposed activities. For those of us who are human beings, this can be quite challenging. We think something will work, we fall in love with the idea, we become obsessed with the idea, and we won’t let go of it.

But what if 100 other organizations have tried the idea, evaluators have evaluated the outcomes, and unfortunately came to the conclusion that the intervention/activity did not address the problem?

So, at this early stage, before you fall in love with your idea, you have the opportunity to research whether there is a basis in scientific evidence that it works.

Both universities and forward thinking organizations monitor projects in an effort to determine if they are achieving their desired impact. The results of many of those studies are available online.

So take your three favorite activities, and search the Internet to see if scientists have found evidence that our chosen activities work to solve the problem statement that we prepared.

What is a scientific, peer-reviewed, document?
A cornerstone idea behind science is that investigators don’t let their personal thoughts, feelings and needs become muddled with the results of their investigation. One of the techniques for ensuring that is to share a draft of their study with their scientific peers. If their peers feel that a scientist has not kept an arm’s length distance in their analysis, they will recommend corrections. This becomes known as a peer-reviewed study. It is these studies that we’re looking for.

Let’s go to Google Scholar. With a good collection of keywords, Google is tremendously powerful and can lead you to many papers that are freely downloadable online. Make sure that they’re from a reputable university or research institute.

These documents will give you an abstract or executive summary that will tell you in one paragraph the results of the study. The body of the study will give you the information on why the activity did or did not work and under what circumstances.

Next month we will see how to organize this information into a simple project outline and a goal statement. They outline will lead naturally into a Logic Framework in preparation for a presentation to a donor.

See you in April.

The 49 Countries:
Australia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Columbia, Ecuador, Ethiopia , France, Guatemala, Guyana, India, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Qatar, Serbia, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad & Tobago W.I., Uganda, UK, Ukraine, United States, Venezuela, Yemen, Zambia.