Do theories of change teach civil society organizations what they already know?

The recent surge of interest in theories of change is based on an assumption that civil society advocacy in the governance sector could benefit from better planning, regular course corrections and systematic monitoring and evaluation (for example, see this post by Duncan Green about DFID and theories of change). But spending a few days with the IBP partners in India last week, fanned my growing doubts about the accuracy of this assumption.

Our Indian partners showed a sophisticated sense of strategy and a shrewd ability to adjust plans according to changes in the political environment or improvements in their understanding of the issues. So maybe the job of those who fund and support these organizations is not to teach CSOs how to plan. Perhaps they/we need to learn about active planning processes inside these organizations and to adapt our support to match these planning processes.

What happened at our theory of change workshop in India

On day one of the workshop we reviewed our partners’ theories of change and the assumptions upon which they are built.Click here to see the program for the workshop and here to see the guide that the IBP has developed to support our partners’ advocacy planning.

As I mentioned above, our Indian partners blew away my belief that we could teach them much about advocacy planning. Without exception, they carefully and tenaciously identified and analyzed assumptions of their theories of change. They also discussed examples of inaccurate assumptions and how they adjusted them. Here are some examples (there are very specific examples behind each of these bullets that I reduced to general statements in order to respect the safe space the we tried to create in the workshop):

  • Government might not honor even high level, legally supported policy commitments, and CSOs must monitor even the  battles that they think they have already won.
  • Influencing and participating in governance processes must happen through unexpected paths sometimes. When bureaucrats won’t listen, it can help to work with political parties. When government-mandated citizen committees to monitor service delivery do not exist, you may need to create them yourself.
  • Citizen mobilization and coalition building can be more difficult than expected. It should be based on a deep understanding of each party’s constraints and incentives.

Why still use theories of change?

What does all of this mean for the broader debate on theories of change? What if the planning, review and adjustment process in CSOs is robustly healthy? What if they continuously reflect on the effectiveness of their work?  What if they are constantly adjusting their plans based on these lessons? What if CSOs do in fact monitor their own progress? 

A fantastic post-workshop discussion with my colleague Ravi Duggal, and the external evaluators of this IBP program, Kimberli Keith-Brown  and Lucy Atkin confirmed my suspicion that most CSOs already know how to strategize and make course corrections. But they argued that theories of change can still help CSOs with the following tasks:

  • Making explicit what they already know and do. An exercise in ‘saying it out loud’ can help identify hidden and untested assumptions and help refine advocacy plans.
  • Supporting shared planning processes with members of their internal team or external stakeholders (donors and others). It could also help CSOs in the same sector to see synergies between their approaches, thus allowing for closer cooperation.
  • Taking stock of how far they’ve come and what has been accomplished.

 PS. Theory of Change resources and a footnote about learning and incentives

I must admit that I was worried about how the program for the India meeting would work out. What would be most valuable in an exercise like this is for people to reflect on where their theories of change were inaccurate and how they might adjust them. But in a group that includes your peers and some of your donors (the IBP and one other), the incentive is to emphasize your successes and impact. To make things worse,or so I thought initially, the evaluators of our  project were also in the room. I tried, weakly, to put a positive spin on the situation by being transparent about all of the above. I even pointed out that while impact on government budgets impresses donors and evaluators, some of us also value the ability to reflect and learn from mistakes. As it turned out all of this was unnecessary hand-wringing on my side, as I hope the above post shows.

If you are still interest in theories of change after all this, click here for 10 great tools to support theory of change formulation, or here for the IBP’s own Super Duper Guide to Impact Planning (we call theories of change ‘impact plans’).

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