Theory of change thinking in practice - A stepwise approach

This guide builds on work of HIVOS' experimentation with and learning about Theory of Change (ToC), including the work of its Theory of Change Learning Group (established 2010).

The guide is divided into three parts: Part A introduces theory of change and Hivos’ perspective on ToC thinking: what it is, what users should know before they start, and key features of ToC thinking that users need to understand in order to be able to use the approach effectively. Part B is a stepwise approach to guide users through the process of developing a ToC for different purposes, including information on how to use specific tools recommended for each step. Part C contains references to tools suggested in Part B, as well as resources and sites where
you can find more information about ToC use. 

This resource and the following information was contributed by Miek van Gaalen.

Authors and their affiliation

Marjan van Es – HIVOS
Irene Guijt 
Isabel Vogel 

Key features

Building on work of a Theory of Change (ToC) Learning Group initiated by HIVOS and other authors, this guide explores important ToC-related concepts and presents an organisation-specific ToC approach. The reader is invited to engage in an innovative thinking process for ToC development and multiple use. The authors propose the development of one or more ToC(s) in an organisation, for use at different levels. 

The guide embraces the “ToC approach” as one that is complementary to the more linear thinking that is often represented as Logframes and Results Frameworks. The ToC concept presented in the guide has a three-fold meaning: a more dynamic way of thinking about Theories of Change, a process of analysis and enquiry, as well as a product that results from such a process.

Key features of the ToC process presented in the guide include identifying complexity, complex systems, and making underlying assumptions explicit. The purpose of this process is the generation of “live” ToC instruments, which can be adjusted on a regular basis, when necessary. For this, creating a joint understanding of change processes, through regular participatory reflection exercises, is proposed as a crucial element for improved programming and success.

The eight key features of the proposed stepwise ToC process are, in turn, represented in a virtuous circle (see page 34), and include the following:

  1. Clarify the purpose of the ToC process
  2. Describe the desired change
  3. Analyse the current situation
  4. Identification of Domains of Change.
  5. Identifying strategic priorities
  6. Map pathways of change
  7. Defining Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Priorities and Process
  8. Use and adaptation of a ToC.

Each step is presented as a dynamic, participatory and interactive process, which builds onto and provides feedback on previous steps.

How have you used or intend on using this resource?

This Guide has been an important tool for my own reflective practice in evaluation (research). It provided important insights on how previous evaluations and assessments in which I participated could have benefitted from a ToC process, (had I been aware of this approach). It presents a range of purposes of ToC use: for programme or project design, strategy revision, quality review of existing programme; strategic learning design, evaluation, collaboration and collective MEL framework and process in a multi-actor initiative, and for scaling up or out (p.36).

Specifically, the elements of this guide that I find useful for evaluation work are:

1. Viewing ToCs as flexible and complementary tools

The guide illustrates how a different appreciation and understanding of ToCs can assist with clarifying and better understanding underlying change theories, and how complementary ToCs can co-exist at different levels, including as a project or programme theory of action, as a ToC for a specific policy domain or theme, organisational ToCs and world view levels (see page 18). This, in turn, may assist with the identification of possible alternative pathways of change/Theories of Action during an evaluation process (which may otherwise be overlooked).

2. ToC processes provide the potential of contributing to more realistic and flexible project design, planning, implementation and evaluation processes

For an evaluator, understanding ToC processes and the complementarity of multiple ToCs can create important advantages for assisting clients with gaining a better understanding of the need for potential adjustments in a project. Applying a ToC process during design, planning, implementation and monitoring processes can support the process of generating a shared understanding of the project or programme, especially regarding the realistic and feasible contributions of a particular project or organisation towards a specific change process.

3. Generating a shared vision amongst stakeholders in an evaluation 

Applying a ToC approach also has important potential benefits for an evaluation process, as it can bring together stakeholders before and in an evaluation. This is particularly relevant when diverse perceptions of a project or programme co-exist, which may result in varying expectations from the evaluation process. A shared understanding of what a project intends to achieve, as well as of its complexities (such as the multiple interrelationships, or the influence of its context) may also contribute to more realistic expectations regarding the evaluation process.

4. Design or Review of ToCs

Evaluators are often asked by clients to assist with the design of, or to review the project’s ToCs. The HIVOS guide provides guidance to evaluators for the generation of ToCs through ToC processes (ideally starting before project design and during implementation). Evaluators may also identify some work that the organisation takes on prior to an evaluation in terms of identifying or developing their ToC.  

5. Timely course correction and adjustment of activities of a project (or evaluation)

When unforeseen changes occur during project implementation, applying the steps in the ToC process may provide opportunities throughout a project cycle to make timely necessary changes. For instance, this can be important when projects start to benefit from ongoing or emerging (positive) systemic changes. They may include the results of co-creation, which may not necessarily be identified at the onset of a project. Similarly, the benefits or negative effects from partnerships and relations that were created by the project may only appear later. Likewise, knowledge generated through the project’s exercises such as mapping, studies, analysis of information can increase the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of a project (and or an evaluation) or this may prompt a reorientation of its course. Including a ToC process as an integrated part of an evaluation process can potentially also inform the focus of an evaluation.

6. Making assumptions explicit

A continuous ToC process includes clarifying the underlying assumptions that accompany the ToCs at different levels, and adjusting them when necessary, through recurring analysis of the current situation (reality checks). These checks can take place both before and during the implementation stage, and, based on participatory monitoring processes, they can create a further opportunity for an organisation to review strategies and adjust underlying ToCs, if considered appropriate. Checking these explicit assumptions creates advantages for planners, project implementer(s), project managers and other stakeholders, and provides opportunities for a timely revision and correction of action during implementation of the project. In turn, this will benefit evaluation processes, allowing for evaluating both the relevance and validity of underlying (updated) assumptions, the adjustment of the assumptions as well as strategic or other course corrections that were undertaken as a result.

Why would you recommend it to other people?

The HIVOS Guide provides a good description of how applying a ToC process or approach can support dynamic organisational learning, and contribute to developing more flexible, realistic and improved project implementation and evaluation processes.

In addition to the virtuous circle of a ToC process, my other favourite diagram in the guide is the representation of the Hour Glass Diagram (page 37), an innovative way of representing the connection between a project and systems of which it is part and to which it intends to contribute. The activities of a specific project/programme as well as the system itself, are represented as two compartments of an hourglass (each with their respective ToC). This visualisation helped me better understand the complexity and complementarity of systemic interrelationships, that cannot not be included in a simple linear model. In the hourglass model, the project/programme objective is the key feature that connects both levels. By “turning the hourglass around”, one can better understand how the changes occurring at project and programme level can influence the changes at the system level, and vice versa. In addition, an overall ToC for the whole model may be designed.

The HIVOS guide invites readers to reflect on their own organisational ToC approach(es), and to consider whether time has come to move away from a linear Theory of Change that reflects more of a theoretic approach, and embrace the ToC process as a valuable, practical project management and evaluation process, a tool that is more aligned with dynamic, complex realities.


van Es, M., Guijt, I., and Vogel, I. (2015). 'Hivos ToC Guidelines: Theory of Change Thinking in Practice'. Retrieved from: