The hidden life of theories of change

One common criticism of Theory of Change is that it is often used as a framework that fixes agreements rather than as a living, guiding tool that helps reflection and adaptation.

However, formally agreed Theories of Change and realities on the ground can be very different. This policy brief explores this, and looks at the interactions between formally agreed Theories of Change and actual advocacy practice, within the context of a multi-country advocacy programme.

This resource and the following information was contributed by Wenny Ho.

Authors and their affiliation

Wenny Ho, Hivos; Margit van Wessel, Wageningen University; Peter Tamas, Wageningen University

Key features

Theory of Change is meant to be a living, guiding tool that helps reflection and adaptation. However, it is often used as a framework that fixes agreements, supporting accountability and control.

This policy brief presents the findings of a study about ways how formally agreed Theory of Change and advocacy practice relate in a multi-country advocacy programme. It shows that while formal Theories of Change can be useful to guide and organize actors, and help to theorize, much of actual strategizing, learning and adaptation remains outside of a Theory of Change process. This applies also to the invisible assets used by advocates to work effectively in complex, dynamic conditions.

Therefore, although Theory of Change does not drive advocacy, it can help provide the right conditions when used in an enabling way.

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

I have drawn upon this discussion paper for developing proposals with a Theory of change; for using Theory of change during implementation; and to share with funders and evaluators.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

Based on the insights obtained in the study, eight recommendations are formulated for funders and for development organisations. Together the recommendations help organizations to make the most of Theory of Change as originally intended by moving away from a focus on control and accountability, towards facilitation and mutual engagement thereby bridging the formal and the informal, and different understandings and realities.


Ho, Wenny, Margit van Wessel, Peter Tamas. (2020). The hidden life of Theories of Change. Hivos and Wageningen University. Retrieved from: