Business Productivity Guide

Proposal Writing Essentials: Theory of Change

Proposal writing has become very demanding in view of the complexity of projects put up for funding and the stakes involved on the part of donors as well as the beneficiaries. Most donors now insist on a comprehensive and clear understanding of the projects submitted for their consideration.

Theory of Change (ToC) has emerged as a key component of proposals to meet this requirement. This becomes all the more essential where the scope and impact of a project is substantial and funds being sought are equally large. Realizing the advantages of ToC approach to proposal writing, it is being accepted as a benchmark of quality and is increasingly becoming a requirement.

Yet, many aspirants for funding are not quite familiar with the concept and methodology of ToC. It is hoped that the contents being presented below will fill this gap.

What is the Theory of Change?

All the projects in the development sector seek to bring about change in some form (e.g. poverty alleviation; improving livelihoods; gender equality). Theory of Change provides a comprehensive description of how and why the desired change could be brought about in a given situation.

It is the basis of planning the entire project and to keep you on track with your proposed results. It helps the donor to understand the reasoning behind your proposed strategy and makes it easier to see if there are any logical pitfalls. While making assumptions in formulating your project, you have to show if you really know the situation on the ground and are able to make logical deductions. It can also help the donor to develop an evaluation strategy with you for your project.

In this way, ToC makes the overall logic of the project transparent.

It is an integral part of a proposal and helps convincing donors of the viability of a project. A vague project (lacking clarity and transparency) is less likely to be funded than a project with well laid out Theory of Change.

An Example to understand Theory of Change

i) Situation Analysis: issues that need to be addressed and problems associated, i.e., the ground reality.

ii) The desired change: lasting impact that the project seeks to achieve (e.g. sustained income of farmers from improved agricultural practices). ToC helps identifying the full range of changes needed to achieve the intended impact. It is more commonly supported with graphics including flow charts, maps, network diagrams or tables.

iii) Preconditions and pathways of change: preconditions are the building blocks of ToC. They are the requirements for the long-term change to take place (e.g. expertise made available to farmers and financial support provided by the authorities concerned are necessary for the desired change).

A Pathway is the sequence in which outcomes must occur to reach long-term goal (the desired change). Pathways are depicted by vertical chains of outcomes connected to one another by arrows, proceeding from early outcomes at the bottom to long-term outcome at the top. Thus, Pathways represent a causal logic.

Each level along the Pathway depicts the chain of outcomes for the next outcome to be achieved. A flow chart of preconditions (in red) and Pathways (in green) is given below:

It may be noted that ToC follows a system of “backwards mapping”, beginning with the long-term goal at the top and working back toward the earliest changes that need to occur. It starts with the question: “what pre-conditions must exist for the long-term goal to be achieved”.

iv) Assumptions: Whether there are any assumptions that will seriously affect project’s ability to deliver. Assumptions are the potential risks which have to be taken into consideration at the planning stage itself, so that they do not come in the way of project implementation.

For example, improving agriculture practices assume that support of government will be forthcoming. If it is unlikely that government will support the initiative, an alternative approach will have to be found for the project to succeed.

V) The nature of change: Whether the project aims at bringing about a change at the level of individuals, community, institutions or government? What changes – behavior, knowledge, systems or policies?

Theory of Change and Logical Framework

There is often a confusion between the Theory of Change and the Logical framework (log frame). The two concepts are closely related but still different. ToC gives the ‘big picture’ in the sense that it brings into focus the complex processes (social, economic, institutional underlying the desired change.

Logical Framework, on the other hand, dwells on the activities leading to outputs, outcomes, and the Goal. A Logical Framework is usually developed after a ToC is developed. From the standpoint of ToC, indicators of change are not the same as performance indicators in a traditional logical framework. Indicators of change relate to the conditions identified in ToC.

Theory of Change and the Program cycle

i) Design phase: ToC is the key piece of design process to clarify and test the assumptions behind achieving the objectives of a project.

ii) Implementation phase: Risk assessments are continually carried out before and during implementation phase of a project. If risks change during implementation, we may have to adapt the ToC to address new risks as we revisit the program.

iii) Evaluation: ToC is the basis for the evaluation framework. It allows the evaluation team to develop effective indicators to analyze the relevance of activities in relation to goals and objectives of the project. It also enables us to examine whether an intervention was ineffective because of poor implementation or a flawed ToC.

Writing a Theory of Change

First and foremost, process of developing a ToC should be participatory involving a cross section of management, technical experts, MEAL (monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning) and key stakeholders.

i) Long-term goal (the desired change): ToC begins with the desired long-term goal and then unravels all the conditions that must be in place to achieve the goal. It is a rational and strategic approach in that it provides the basis for identifying the interventions or activities required to reach the goal. In this way, the link between interventions and the long-term goal are fully understood leading to proper planning for change to take place.

ii) Strategic conditions: With the desired change at the top, walk backwards and ask yourself: “what has to change for that to happen?” Which conditions are necessary in order to achieve the desired change? (Refer to the flow-chart above under preconditions). Many preconditions need to happen for your project to succeed (government policies, economic and social support, availability of infrastructure etc.)

iii) Implementation: What needs to be done for the change to happen? In other words, spell out the strategies or interventions/activities required to achieve the desired goal.

iv) Pathways to change: A map that illustrates relationship between actions and outcomes and how outcomes are related to each other by depicting preconditions (refer to the flow-chart above). 

v) Change indicators: Develop indicators to ensure whether you have been successful. Performance indicators will have to be developed for specific outcomes.

vi) Monitoring, Accountability and Learning: This part of ToC provides answers to questions such as: who takes part in design and implementation of monitoring system? Who collects, selects and analyzes the indicators? who is accountable for what? what are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the lessons to learn by way of design and implementation of the program? 


Ann-Murray Brown (2016). What is this thing called ‘Theory of Change’?

Harris E. (2015). An introduction to theory of change.

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