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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Boosting Resilience

Tamara McNeill and Thanasis Spyriadis introduce the 'Theory of Change' approach, and Paul Steele explains how he used it to better understand how his organisation works.

A crowd of people on a street holding illuminated paper sculptures
Bolsover Lantern Parade, a Junction Arts project

Theory of Change (ToC) is the internal theory of your organisation or your project. It is essentially your (and ideally your team’s) rationalisation of what you do. In short, why or how will your activity lead to the achievement of your goals? This involves identifying short, intermediate and longer-term outcomes and linking these to your activities.

Unlike many of the classic logic models, the ToC approach goes further than this by challenging you to surface and articulate your assumptions about why A will lead to B. So rather than being told or simply accepting that A will lead to B (and by the time A hasn’t led to B it is too late to do much about it), ToC helps you to see deeper into what you can do to reduce risk and increase your chances of reaching B.

You develop a shared understanding of the activities that lead to the outputs and outcomes that deliver your mission

A ToC can be as simple or as complex as you choose, can (and often will) be non-linear, and can be used to identify potential negative as well as positive outcomes.

ToC originates in evaluation, and is particularly useful for formative evaluations where findings are used to refine or completely overhaul ongoing projects or programmes. But the approach also has a wider use as a planning tool.

For the first Boosting Resilience residential, the evaluation team ran a session for participants to develop a ToC for a new project. Although we aim to support innovation using creative assets and IP, tools that reduce the likelihood of failure are key to doing so in a way that actually boosts rather than undermines resilience.

The theory in action

Paul Steele found ToC so useful that he used the approach to support change at Junction Arts in Chesterfield. Here, he explains how:

I have a responsibility to articulate our purpose as both an arts organisation and a charity in the clearest way possible (as an elevator pitch). This can sometimes be difficult when our activities can lead to multifaceted outcomes. This is why I was interested in implementing a ToC process.

Examining our mission

Our mission is to deliver magical and memorable arts experiences with the communities of north Derbyshire to improve wellbeing, build confidence and skills, address inequality and inspire change. We do this through a series of place-based community arts projects and a programme of festivals and events.

Like most arts organisations, our mission is both ambitious and broad, and at regular intervals during the past 42 years, we’ve found it useful to stop and have a reality check. Periodically we ask ourselves two fundamental questions: how we are achieving our mission and if it is still relevant and necessary to our communities.

Following a period of review in 2017, we used the ToC process to scrutinise our mission and dig down into the detail of how we achieve it. At our annual board and staff away-day, we split our mission into three claims or assumptions. These were that we do the following:

  • Deliver magical and memorable arts experiences.
  • Improve wellbeing, build confidence and skills.
  • Address inequality and inspire change.

Armed with post-it notes, marker pens and A3 ToC templates, we split into three teams, each a mixture of board and staff members with differing levels of experience, to address each claim. Using the claim as the end-point, each group worked backwards to identify the activities, outputs and outcomes (short, medium and long-term) that lead to the delivery of that claim within the mission statement: ‘What activities do we deliver that bring about outcomes for our beneficiaries that lead to the delivery of our mission?’ This technique enabled us to really get under the skin of the organisation and also identify areas for development.

Digging into the detail

Some group members initially found this process difficult. Digging down into the detail can be hard. As a sector we sometimes struggle to clearly articulate how we deliver on our ambitious claims. This is where ToC is really helpful, as it gives you a framework within which you can scrutinise your organisation or project collectively.

By going through the process, you develop a shared understanding of the activities that lead to the outputs and outcomes that deliver your mission. But crucially, it gives you the tools to make any assumptions explicit, and this is of huge value to a sector that operates in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment. For arts organisations, clarity of purpose might now be more elusive. But it is also more fundamental to surviving - and more importantly, thriving.

The three teams then imagined three individual beneficiary journeys. Using a simple storyboard technique, they mapped a participant journey through our programme illustrating any change that took place. For example, working on our ‘This Girl Codes’ project is how Sarah built confidence and learned new skills. Again, through this process we were able to develop a shared understanding of how we influence change and add credibility to the claims within our mission.

The ToC process was useful, not only in making explicit how we have an impact as an arts charity, but also in the renewed confidence shared by the board and staff in who we are, what we do and why we do it.

What we learnt

There were a number of important things we learnt about using ToC that might be of value to other organisations:

  • Mixed groups of staff and board members with differing levels of organisational knowledge worked well because the newer people were more confident about asking difficult ‘how’ questions and didn’t have as many in-built assumptions.
  • Explaining that ToC is an ongoing process rather than a definitive answer to be reached in the session helped to address some of the initial trepidation.
  • Developing storyboards to underpin our ToC models helped us to ask ourselves 'how'.

Junction Arts used the ToC process for our mission statement, but we can also see the value in using it on specific projects to make outcomes explicit and credible.

Tamara McNeill is Senior Research Associate and Thanasis Spyriadis is Senior Lecturer, both at Manchester Metropolitan University. Paul Steele is Managing Director of Junction Arts.

Photo of Tamara McNeill
Photo of Thanasis Spyriadis
Photo of Paul Steele