Build a Theory of Change

For this step you will need:


Now it’s time to develop your solution and map your path to success via a theory of change.

In this step you will figure out what you, the beneficiaries of your program, and other key actors need to do in order to achieve your ultimate outcome.

Review this video from the Introduction to see how a theory of change works, and how it can guide your path to social impact.

A Basic Theory of Change

A theory of change shows how your work will lead to your ultimate outcome—the improvement in people’s lives that you want to make happen. It identifies all of the steps that are required to reach your goal.

Let’s review a basic theory of change.

basic theory of change

As you see in the illustration, a theory of change is a set of causes and effects. Your activities are the things you do. Those activities cause behaviors and other intermediate outcomes—changes in the world beyond your organization. And those intermediate outcomes cause your ultimate outcome.

Example: Reducing Infant Diarrhea

Consider a simple theory of change for addressing the problem of infant diarrhea in a developing country. Every year, millions of children in developing countries get sick from contaminated water and many die. The technical solution is inexpensive and simple: add a chlorine compound to the water that kills bacteria and parasites.

Theory of change for infant diarrhea

For this strategy to work, families must develop a new behavior: putting chlorine tablets in the water container in their house (and they must only drink the chlorinated water). This new behavior is an intermediate outcome that leads to another intermediate outcome: bacteria being killed.

Why might this simple strategy not work? Consider:

You could improve and motivate people’s behavior in this situation by adding a reminder with clear instructions.

Theory of change for infant diarrhea

The revised strategy calls for a series of four intermediate outcomes to achieve the ultimate outcome: 

  1. People opt in to receive a text message reminder
  2. They notice the reminder
  3. It causes them to put the correct number of chlorine tablets in their water jug
  4. The chlorine kills the bacteria

Is there a way to provide families with clean water that doesn’t depend on individuals’ behaviors to such a great extent? Many urban families get water that’s already purified, requiring no action on their part. Some governments provide clean well water to rural villages, and the nonprofit Charity: Water has funded numerous projects with the same goal. But people’s behaviors play a critical role even here: the well must be properly maintained and the water must be properly stored in the home and not mixed with contaminated water.

Example: Reducing the Trauma of Car Accidents

The different kinds of theories of change that we’ve just described are replicated in myriad public policies as well as interventions by social entrepreneurs.

Consider government efforts to make the occupants of a car wear seatbelts with the goal of reducing the injuries caused by accidents. Unfortunately, many people won’t buckle up without some inducement.

In the U.S. and some other countries, government regulations require cars to be engineered so that they make annoying beeps if the seatbelt is not fastened. The two intermediate outcomes are both behavioral: passengers are annoyed by the beeps and they fasten their seatbelts—with the ultimate outcome of reducing injuries.

An alternative approach would be to require the car to be engineered so that the car will not start unless the seatbelt is fastened. This does not require motivating passenger behavior, since occupants don’t have a choice whether to wear a seatbelt. Nonetheless, like virtually all public policies this requires a behavior: compliance by those subject to the regulation.

How to Design a Theory of Change

Now it’s time for you to develop a theory of change to achieve your ultimate outcome.

Keep in mind that the core elements you will include are:

  1. Activities: What you will do
  2. Intermediate outcomes: What your beneficiaries and other major actors will do (their behaviors/actions) and what happens as a result of those actions
  3. Ultimate outcome: What you will achieve

The elements and causal links in your theory of change should be informed by all of the evidence you’ve gathered about the problem and its possible solutions.

Be clear about the difference between activities and outcomes

If you’re unclear about the elements of a theory of change, consider the expression “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Leading the horse to water is your activity. The horse’s drinking is an essential intermediate outcome—a behavior that leads to the ultimate outcome of the horse being hydrated. And if the horse is not willing, it’s your job to figure out why and make it happen.


Your completed theory of change captures how you will turn your proposed approach into a viable program or policy.

Here’s how to develop a theory of change.






Jordan's Journey

Let’s check in with Jordan and see how she develops a theory of change for her diabetes prevention program.

Lessons in Change

Even with great ideas, and in the best of circumstances, creating a theory of change is hard work. It pushes you to make difficult choices about what you can and cannot achieve with your resources. And it requires you to be clear about the path from your activities to the ultimate outcome—and to assess your confidence in the evidence for each causal link.

Best Practices

Here are some good practices to follow in the process of developing your theory of change.

  1. » Learn from previous attempts to solve the problem
    If there are existing solutions, what evidence do you have about their success or failure? Be sure to incorporate what you’ve learned as you design your strategy.
  2. » Identify people within your organization to engage in the process
    It’s important to include people who are essential to the success of your strategy—especially your board and staff. They can offer you different perspectives and ideas. Participating in designing the theory of change also builds their sense of ownership in its success.
  3. » Get feedback from external stakeholders
    As you’re developing a theory of change, it’s important to get feedback from your target population and other key stakeholders to ensure that your strategy makes sense. In addition to helping you improve the strategy, seeking and listening to their advice can get their buy-in and support. There are many ways to get feedback about your theory of change. You can establish a planning group that meets regularly, or meet as needed with key individuals or organizations, or conduct a survey. Many people use a combination of these approaches.
  4. » Assess your capacity
    Be realistic about how big a part of the problem you can address. What staff, time, money, expertise, and other resources does your strategy require? Do you have, or can you readily get, those resources? Look for opportunities to collaborate to maximize resources and focus on areas of strength.
  5. » Eliminate unnecessary activities
    Ensure that each activity will lead to an intermediate outcome necessary to achieve your ultimate outcome. If an activity does not contribute to the ultimate outcome through this path, eliminate it. 

Common Pitfalls

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when developing your theory of change.

  1. » Focusing more on your activities than the intermediate outcomes necessary to achieve your ultimate outcome
    It’s easy to prioritize your activities because you have control over what you do. Don’t lose sight of the changes in key actors’ behaviors and other intermediate outcomes that are necessary for your intervention to succeed.
  2. » Failing to take account of beneficiaries’ and other stakeholders’ behaviors.
    The intermediate outcomes for virtually all theories of change involve people’s behaviors. You have presumably designed a strategy to cause beneficiaries and other stakeholders to act in ways that will achieve your ultimate outcome. But it is enormously difficult to predict and motivate people’s behaviors. You can’t just assume your strategy will work. You must observe people’s lived experience to understand their situation and the challenges they face.
  3. » Not clearly linking your activities to the behaviors they must reinforce or motivate
    For the reasons just mentioned, your activities must be aimed at enabling or motivating behaviors in order to achieve your ultimate outcome.
  4. » Building a strategy on poor or incomplete information
    The success of a theory of change, and of the program or policy it guides, depend on the strength of the underlying evidence. Be open to receiving new and better evidence along the way, incorporating it into your theory of change, and correcting your strategy as needed.
  5. » Getting lost in the clouds or in the weeds
    There are many ways you can get off-track in this process—especially when a lot of people are involved. A grand vision or mission statement may be motivating, but is no substitute for designing a step-by-step, evidence based, theory of change. Although the theory of change should describe the fundamental causal links from activities to intermediate outcomes to the ultimate outcome, it shouldn’t get bogged down in details—such as who in the organization will perform the activities and how many they will do.
  6. » Combining several different theories of change into one
    You may decide that your success in achieving an outcome depends on your doing several very different activities. In a food security program that teaches people to fish, you might also need to engage in advocacy to prevent the fish from being killed by pollutants in the water. Even if your organization has the capacity to do both, treat these as two distinct strategies and design a separate theory of change for each one.

Learn More


Your theory of change will continue to evolve before and even after you launch your social enterprise. Keep that in mind as you develop a strategy.

In this step, concentrate on building a theory of change that:

Do your best to get the theory of change right before you begin implementing it, but don’t get so attached to it that you can’t see problems and make changes as it unfolds. That’s critical to your success as a social entrepreneur or policymaker.