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Global Interdependence Initiative
CONTINUOUS PROGRESS Better Advocacy Through Evaluation
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“Evaluation can have real formative value, not just summative. While it is important to look at results, evaluation can also help us learn how to do our work better. Since advocacy involves constant strategizing, we should position the evaluation to give real-time feedback that informs strategy decisions on an ongoing basis.”
— Julia Coffman, Harvard Family Research Project


While this example is from domestic U.S. policy advocacy, it illustrates the uses of Theory of Change for planning, monitoring, and evaluation.

In 1996 the W.K. Kellogg Foundation decided to work on welfare reform and health care issues by forming the Devolution Initiative. Through 2001, the Initiative supported 30 national and state research, policy, and advocacy organizations, and teams of minority researchers and community organizers, to work together, with a particular focus in five states (Florida, Mississippi, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin) on three primary goals. Read more »

Checking In with Your Theory of Change

You took the time to make your theory of change precise and specific in the planning stages of your advocacy campaign. Now it is time to reap the benefits of your hard work. It is time to use those indicators to measure your progress and analyze “what happened and why.”

Your theory of change is based on assumptions you had about the effects of your advocacy activities. If you have recorded your theory of change as a flow chart, follow it step by step, arrow by arrow, and see how far you can go. For each arrow, if certain assumptions are true, the next step will occur. One of three outcomes will be apparent at each step:

Possible Result 1: Undeniable success!
In some instances, the assumption may be completely accurate and the step occurred exactly as anticipated. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done! But, before you get too comfortable, think about why this step went well. Was it the result of luck or carefully calibrated actions? Wherever you can, apply lessons learned from this very positive achievement to the rest of your advocacy efforts.

Possible Result 2: Success, well, sort of…
For other arrows in your theory of change, the assumption connects to a step that did not happen exactly as planned. That's not bad news at all—in fact, this is why you documented your theory of change in the first place. Ask yourself: What part of the assumption was not true? Did external or unplanned events influence this assumption? Was the assumption overly optimistic?

Regardless of your advocacy field, you already know that many external factors could influence your work. In many cases, you will have little or no control over them. That's the bad news. The good news is that the theory of change allows you to revisit your plan and your assumptions. You can now take these new events into account, and redirect your actions accordingly. Unplanned events can offer an opportunity for you to step up your advocacy activities.

For a concrete example, let's revisit our sample theory of change and propose three scenarios:

  1. You thought that by sending an action alert e-mail to your online constituents it would automatically arrive in their inboxes. What happens if a popular Web browser sends your e-mails to a junk mail folder? While some e-mails did arrive, many constituents didn't receive the action alert. Now it's time to ask “why” and figure out how to make this assumption stronger for future advocacy activities.
  2. You have records of a high click-through rate on your action alert e-mail, but little action occurred as a result of it. As you investigate further, you realize that many constituents on your mailing list are college students who were taking exams that week and had very little time to go to your Web site and take action.
  3. Good news! The number of people who took action far exceeds the number of constituents on your mailing list. Why was your action so popular? It turns out that the day before you sent the action alert a popular celebrity was on national television speaking out about your issue. As a result, many of your constituents decided to forward your alert to their friends, family and co-workers, hoping that many of them had watched the celebrity's appearance and may now be more familiar with the issue.

Check out the section on Monitoring Benchmarks and Indicators for some suggestions on how to analyze why something did or didn't happen and how to make your advocacy stronger as a result.

Possible Result 3: A breakdown
The third possible result is all too realistic: Suppose the assumption did not hold true and the next step in the theory of change did not occur. This constitutes a breakdown in your theory.

Returning to our sample theory of change, we thought that an increase in the number of constituent e-mails would cause a congressional aide to investigate your issue further. As it turns out, the aide didn't even budge. It's time to pinpoint what you did not anticipate that might have resulted in the breakdown. What went wrong, and how can this be fixed to keep the chain reaction of advocacy activities in motion? Again, the answer may not be simple. You may have to dig to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Use the tools in the Monitoring Benchmarks and Indicators section to develop a way to steer the advocacy ship back on course. Has another more urgent issue taken over the aides' agenda? Is it time for a focus group of congressional aides to better understand how to effectively reach them? Could you get an interview with some aides in an office your organization is close with? Once you determine the cause of the breakdown, use the findings to inform your theory of change.


  • Probe and get to the bottom. Don't be content with a simple “yes, it happened” or “no, it did not.” Figure out why breakdowns in the theory of change occur and develop new strategies to overcome any challenges.
  • Even the best theory of change will break down from time to time. They are theories, after all. They are meant to serve as an early warning system to help correct mistakes before an advocacy campaign wanders too far off course.
  • External or unplanned events are an opportunity to test your ability to quickly react, adapt and change course if needed. This is a capacity you can build, and you might want to consider including it in your grant proposal. Your grantmaker could be open to it.