Handbook on Data Collection / Phase Two B: Design ToC

From Akvopedia
< Handbook on Data Collection
Revision as of 08:53, 4 December 2018 by Winona (talk | contribs)

(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
English Français

Step two: Designing a Theory of Change (ToC)

Designing a ToC is the central part of any ToC based approach to project design. As the name suggests, a Theory of Change is a hypothesis of how we think change occurs. It consists of a visual diagram and a narrative with causal assumptions - “if we do X, Y happens because we believe Z.” ToCs are also referred to as Intervention Logics or Results Chains. When designed with an understanding of factors and stakeholders, a ToC helps to make sense of and navigate the complex environment in which the project is operating. A ToC is a perception of reality which is shaped by the norms, values, experience and beliefs of the people who create it. It’s therefore important to involve different stakeholders, to be sure different perspectives are captured in the ToC. Designing a ToC together results in a shared understanding of the partners involved, and co-ownership of the results which need to be achieved to contribute to the desired impact.

When designing a ToC, the first thing that needs to be identified is the desired long-term impact the project wants to achieve or contribute to (see Figure 5). An impact statement without targets is enough. After identifying the intended impact, the participants can determine which outcomes need to be achieved in order to reach that long-term impact. In order to phrase an expected outcome, it helps to use the following mnemonic: “who should be doing what differently?”

It's important to note, an outcome is a change in the behaviour, relationships, actions, activities, policies, or practices of an individual, group, community, organisation, or institution.

Once all expected outcomes have been identified on cards, they can be organised on the wall in logical cause and effect relationships. When a project has several topics or issues, separate “pathways of change” can be built for each of them, with small teams who can zoom into each specific topic. The resulting pathways of change can then be collectively connected at the end to have the full Theory of Change.

Once the stakeholders have identified one or multiple pathways of change, they can come up with strategies to set into motion the causal chains of events. Strategies are a general description of what the project needs to do to make the expected outcomes happen. Every strategy will have a pathway of change. Strategies are a general description of what needs to be done; the more specific activities in the strategies will be defined later. In reality, strategies may already be determined before the expected outcomes are mapped and an impact is defined. In that case, the ToC design exercise will help to identify the expected outcomes and their causal relationships and understand how the strategies will lead to the envisioned impact.

Once the strategies, expected outcomes, impact(s), and their linkages are identified, the underlying causal assumptions should be made explicit. Trying to document these assumptions can lead to the identification of weak spots in the Theory of Change and, at the same time, results in stakeholders becoming aware of each other’s visions of reality. When phrasing causal assumptions, it can be tempting to start a circular reasoning.

Avoid phrases like “A leads to B, because B is the result of A”. Instead, try reasoning as follows: “If we do action X, we will contribute to outcome Y because we believe that Z.”

For example, if we support the ministry of water with data collection and analysis for water point mapping, then they will use the map for decision making on investment priorities, because they were actively involved in the identification of the problem (no updated information on functionality of water points) and feel co-ownership of the solution (data collection for evidence-based decisions).

Figure 5. First steps to develop a Theory of Change

Co-creating a ToC with all stakeholders involved will lead to a common understanding of how change happens, create awareness on different norms and values between stakeholders, generate co-ownership of the project, help to decide on the scope of the project, and support decision-making on what interventions should be pursued to achieve the biggest impact by whom. It can also expose gaps in your activities or show you where there is an overlap with the activities of other actors or projects.

Figure 6. Example of a Theory of Change diagram

Step three: Designing a flexible planning, monitoring, evaluation, and learning (PMEL) framework

A Theory of Change which has been designed together with the relevant stakeholders and which is based on an understanding of the context is the foundation for a relevant and useful PMEL framework (see Figure 7). All steps between the strategy and the impact are expected outcomes that in theory can be monitored, but in practice should not. Only a small selection of the outcomes should be selected to be monitored. For example, out of 25 expected outcomes in the ToC, monitor four or five. Together, the stakeholders can define which outcomes are the most important, as well as practical, to monitor across the project.

Each expected outcome can have one or more indicators that make it possible to measure the progress towards this outcome.

For example:

  • Outcome: “The local government effectively monitors WASH infrastructure in district X”
  • Indicator: “Number of water points monitored on functionality and water quality in district X”
  • Outcome: “The national government allocates more budget to WASH”
  • Indicator: “Amount of budget that is allocated to the ministry of water on a yearly basis”

Together, these results and indicators constitute the project’s monitoring framework. For each indicator, the method used to measure it needs to be determined. Is the information that is needed quantitative or qualitative in nature? Is the information provided by end users, data collectors, sensors, or secondary sources? At what interval should each indicator be measured? Is there baseline data available? What are the best tools to collect the data? For more information on how to design a survey and sample group, see phase four of the Handbook.

Figure 7. Last steps to develop a Theory of Change


The three steps of a Theory of Change based approach to project design are an effective way of working collaboratively towards a common understanding of what the project should achieve and what activities the project should focus on to contribute to impact. It is important to note that a ToC by nature is subject to constant change. During the implementation of a project, the context may change, resulting in the need for an adaptation of the ToC. During implementation, you may realise that outcomes are missing, causal assumptions need to be adapted, or interrelations changed. Theories of Change therefore need to be reviewed at least once per year, based on monitoring findings and a context analysis update. Also, a ToC revision workshop can form an excellent basis for writing an annual activity plan, keeping the ToC at the heart of your project at all times.

The monitoring framework of a project shows what data needs to be collected to describe or score the indicators which are used to monitor progress, as well as which methods will be used. This is how Theory of Change based project design links to the following phase, data research, where we assess whether any of the necessary data is already available from secondary sources, and what data still needs to be gathered by the project.

Suggested Reading

A useful manual which is easily accessible is the Hivos Theory of Change Guide.


Authors: Anita van der Laan (Akvo.org), Annabelle Poelert (Akvo.org)
Contributors: Marten Schoonman (Akvo.org), Karolina Sarna (Akvo.org), Tarryn Quayle (Local Governments for Sustainability Africa (ICLEI Africa)


The Africa-EU Innovation Alliance for Water and Climate (AfriAlliance), is a 5-year project funded by the European Union’s H2020 Research and Innovation Programme. It aims to improve African preparedness for climate change challenges by stimulating knowledge sharing and collaboration between African and European stakeholders. Rather than creating new networks, the 16 EU and African partners in this project will consolidate existing ones, consisting of scientists, decision makers, practitioners, citizens and other key stakeholders, into an effective, problem-focused knowledge sharing mechanism.
AfriAlliance is lead by the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education (Project Director: Dr. Uta Wehn) and runs from 2016 to 2021. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 689162.
EU flag RGB.jpg