How to Use Theory of Change and a Logic Model to Describe Your Program

The Theory of Change and the Logic Model

I’m all about simplifying complex ideas, processes, and strategies. I love to show nonprofit leaders how easy it can be to evaluate their programs by following a thoughtful, targeted, and results-based plan.

Recently I defined the fundamentals of program evaluation, including three types you may implement in your agency. This article focuses on theory of change and the core elements of a logic model, both practical and interrelated strategies for articulating your program concisely and actionably.

A theory of change is a description of how and why a set of activities—be they part of a highly focused program or a comprehensive initiative—are expected to lead to short-, medium-, and long-term outcomes over a period of time. It’s a description of why a program works, providing a core hypothesis of the program you are testing.

After choosing your program evaluation approach, describe what change you expect to see because of the program, and how. Use a series of if-then statements to define this theory of change.

Let’s say you run a soup kitchen in a metropolitan area and want to expand your agency’s reach. Your theory of change could be:

  • If multiple soup kitchens are available throughout the city, then more hungry people will be fed.
  • If resources are distributed from one to several soup kitchens in various locations, then the program will have a broader impact.

Enter the logic model

A logic model is a core evaluation model that relates to a theory of change. It is a framework that describes in more detail than a theory of change what program components are leading to your outcomes. It frames your theory of change and derives needed qualitative and quantitative indicators to measure the most important aspects of your program.

A logic model displays the sequence of actions that describe what the program does and links investments with results. It is a systematic and visual way of representing relationships, a blueprint that helps organize information, and a tool to evaluate programs.

Elements of a logic model

A logic model contains the following core elements:

  • Inputs: The resources used to meet the program’s needs—money, time, materials, and equipment
  • Activities: Daily happenings that comprise the work of the program—employees’ tasks and participants’ experiences
  • Outputs: Direct and tangible products of the program’s activities that have little inherent value to program participants—indicate program efficiency
  • Outcomes: Benefits of change for individuals because of participation in the program—indicate program effectiveness

Outcomes can be short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Short-term outcomes produce increasing knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Intermediate outcomes affect behavior. Long-term outcomes have an impact on the big picture theory of change you wish to see.

Let’s define outcomes for one of the if-then statements in our above theory of change: If multiple soup kitchens are available throughout the city, then more hungry people will be fed.

  • Short-term outcome: City leaders believe opening more soup kitchens is important (attitude).
  • Medium-term outcome: City leaders vote to open more soup kitchens across the metropolitan area (behavior).
  • Long-term outcome: More city residents have access to hot food, and fewer people go hungry (impact).

Theory of change articulates the links between inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes, while a logic model defines each of these elements separately. You can use both together to comprehensively articulate what your program is intended to achieve.

For more information about program evaluation, check out my blog post, “Program Evaluation and Your Organization.” If you could use some expert support with program evaluation, contact organizational development consulting firm Brighter Strategies today.

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