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Global Interdependence Initiative
CONTINUOUS PROGRESS Better Advocacy Through Evaluation
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“Funders need to think about how their funding can be leveraged in the long run. When foundations invest in leadership and communications training, this is long-term thinking in action. When they facilitate grantmakers and grantees getting together to discuss how they can collaborate better, we are looking at a different kind of investment in capacity building. More of it would be ideal.”

--Jim McDonald, Bread for the World

Your Theory of Change: The Key to Planning Your Advocacy Grantmaking

No matter what your institutional culture and history, board composition, vision, and mission, it is difficult to accomplish any policy advocacy goal without a well-thought-through plan: your theory of change. A theory of change is a simple, step-by-step model describing the assumptions, program inputs and expected outcomes of your efforts. The idea of theory of change has been applied to all sorts of policy advocacy, and some great work on the topic emerged from analyzing the challenges of community development in major American cities.

Grantmakers benefit enormously when they formulate a theory of change that spells out how they expect their grantees will contribute to better policy. Your theory of change should be a useful tool -- a lens that gives you a sharp focus on the steps you need to take, or a strong, well-placed lever that can help you move just the right mountain. Your theory of change will force you to clarify your assumptions about how change will happen. A general statement of intention won't do it. Mission statements or broad visions cannot substitute for a sound theory of change. At its best, a theory of change is a fairly exhaustive plan that shows every step, large or small, on the path to your goal. Theories of change should be specific, detailing advocacy actions your grantee(s), and perhaps your organization, will take and the intended or "assumed" results. A detailed theory of change will give you a credible, well-drawn blueprint for your advocacy work and a clear basis for your evaluation. In fact, it will make your evaluation life much, much simpler.

Advocates planning a campaign to reach out to the public or to legislators need to carefully think through their own theory of change. The same is true for grantmakers. Advocates assess each of their campaign's actions to ensure that these will complement and build on each other sufficiently to achieve the desired result. In the same way, a grantmaker must look carefully at how the expected outcomes from each grant or activity will work together to further the grantmaker's overall vision for change. And here's the most important point: your ideas about a particular grantee's role need to match their ideas. That requires clear and candid give and take so that assumptions and expectations are aligned from the beginning. If you are funding a coalition, your discussions can help trigger a useful process of clarifying the division of labor among advocacy groups.

When setting out a theory of change, think about your starting point and your ultimate goal. Next, consider what activity, advocacy or otherwise, you could underwrite or implement that would move you towards that goal. Write down its intended outcome. Based on the assumed result of each activity, think of what your next step would be, its intended outcome, and so on.

For example, if your organization defines an advocacy agenda and proactively seeks specific policy outcomes, your theory of change could be quite specific as well -- much as a campaign's would be -- pointing to each grant and its anticipated outcome. Each outcome should open up new opportunities to further your goal.

Perhaps your grantmaking strategy is instead to react "on the fly” when opportunities to shape policy appear. Or perhaps your organization intends to act primarily as a convener, building the infrastructure to bring diverse viewpoints together toward a common goal. Your theory of change might simply identify the preconditions it will take to bring about your long-term goal. Regardless of your strategy, remember that there are factors that your initiative cannot control. This will help you maintain realistic expectations about what you (and your grantees) will accomplish. This exercise may help you identify partners - or different strategies - that could help you fill in some gaps.

Take a look at the sample grantmaker theory of change below (click it to see a large version). In our example, a grantmaker envisions a four-year plan to introduce and bring into practice a policy change. In the first two years, the funder spends money on two crucial steps: funding organizations to identify congressional champions for this particular goal, and raising the public's awareness of the goal. Three organizations are enlisted in this effort, each with its own theory of change developed (ideally) in consultation with the grantmaker. You can see an excerpt from the theory of change of one of these organizations here. In the third year, the grantmaker assumes that congressional champions have been identified and just enough of the target audiences in the public have been informed about the goal. Based on these assumptions, the grantmaker funds a coalition and begins to work with the members to promote events and congressional resolutions in support of the goal. In the fourth year, the grantmaker assumes that the profile-raising efforts of the third year have translated into greater momentum. A broader coalition is created, with more funding partners and advocacy organizations, and the final push for legislative victory is outlined.

Grantmaker TOC

Notice that the foundation's theory of change includes a vision for different organizations funded at different phases of the campaign, while some groups stay engaged throughout the four years.

A sound theory of change can work as a roadmap for an entire campaign, highlighting potential hazards, faulty assumptions, rough patches and waiting opportunities. It is also a critical ingredient to conducting thoughtful evaluation throughout the life of your advocacy work.