Theory of Change emerged in the 1990s as a means to model and evaluate comprehensive community initiatives within the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. Act-Knowledge has developed and applied Theory of Change to real-world situations in health care, higher education, after-school programs, tobacco-prevention advocacy, and other areas.

Theories of change in some form were used as tools for program evaluation long before ActKnowledge or the Roundtable began refining the process. It is probably impossible to pinpoint the first use of the term “Theory of Change,” but a hint at its origins can be found in the evaluation community among the work of notable methodologists, such as Huey Chen, Peter Rossi, Michael Quinn Patton, and Carol Weiss. These methodologists and others have been thinking about how to apply program theories to evaluation since 1980.

The Roundtable’s early work focused on working through the challenges of evaluating complex community initiatives. This work culminated in a 1995 publication, New Approaches to Evaluating Comprehensive Community Initiatives. In that book, Carol Weiss, a member of the Roundtable’s steering committee on evaluation, hypothesized that a key reason why complex programs are so difficult to evaluate is that the assumptions that inspire them are poorly articulated. She argued that stakeholders of complex community initiatives are typically unclear about how the change process will unfold and therefore place little attention on the early and mid-term changes needed to reach a longer term goal. This lack of clarity about the steps along the way to a long-term outcome reduces the likelihood that all the important factors related to the long-term goal will be addressed.

Theory of Change uncovers the assumptions we make about what is possible in reaching a long-term goal. TOC also specifies the connections between program activities and outcomes. TOC challenges the designers of complex community-based initiatives to be specific about their often implicit theories of how to achieve the change they seek. Doing so both improves their evaluation plans and strengthens one’s ability to claim credit for outcomes predicted in their theory. The TOC approach seems like common sense: lay out the sequence of outcomes that are expected to occur as the result of an intervention, and plan an evaluation strategy around tracking whether these expected outcomes are actually produced.