Theory of Change

A theory of change, quite simply, is the thinking (theory) behind the change a programme or service is intended to achieve. It makes very clear the rationale on which the work is based upon and offers a logical roadmap of what you will do, how you will do it, and why you will do it. 

The now commonly known ‘Blagrave report’ on “The Existing Evidence-Base about the Effectiveness of Outdoor Learning” (Fiennes, et al., 2015) highlighted theories of change as “…invaluable for understanding why an intervention works”. As well as supporting the articulation of activities and intention, a theory of change can strengthen advocacy and funding applications and provide a foundation for evidencing impact. 

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A Simplified Theory of Change Model

A theory of change can be presented in many ways – the best way is that which is most appropriate to your audience. A simple image is best supported by a written description.


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  • The identified need shapes the boundaries of the programme or service – what you want to be different, for whom, and in what way.
  • Underpinning assumptions are the research, theories, models and beliefs that support your approach. Some elements might be hidden as part of “the way we do things round here.”
  • Resources and constraints are the building blocks required to achieve the programme objectives, such as people, skills, facilities, equipment, time and finance. A programme uses these inputs to provide activities.
  • Planned activities are the purposeful experiences that take place, or the services provided. Activities result in outputs - measurable data about what has happened (who participated, activities completed, when did it happen, etc.).
  • Intended outcomes are the benefits for participants either during or following a programme. They are usually a change in knowledge, skills, behaviours, attitudes, etc. Indicators let you know whether an outcome has occurred and/or, by how much.
  • Desired impacts are the long-term cumulative effects of the programme or service for individuals, their community and the wider world.

A theory of change can be presented in many ways – the best way is that which is most appropriate to your audience. A simple image is best supported by a written description.

Image and summary by Neal Anderson developed from Measuring Programme Outcomes: A Practical Approach, United Way of America, 1996. Also see the Outdoor Education Programme Model, John Crosbie 2013, and the Think NPC Theory of Change in 10 Steps, James Noble 2019.

Theories of change have been a part of youth work for many years (see the work done by the Centre for Youth Impact, for example) and are increasingly being used in all aspects of work with young people. Dave Harvey and Dr Lucy Maynard have written a series of IOL blogs and articles applying their understanding of theory of change in the outdoor learning sector.

Applications of a Theory of Change

The Institute for Outdoor Learning strongly encourage developing and applying a theory of change at the beginning of a programme (to support planning), during the programme (to support managing delivery), and to describe an existing programme (to support research and evaluation). 

A Theory of Change can:

  • Ensure a shared understanding of how a programme or organisation is trying to make a difference.
  • Make explicit different views and assumptions about the change process, especially seemingly obvious ones.
  • Help people focus on the programme purpose and long-term aim rather than starting from, and maybe getting too caught up in, current activities.
  • Identify the key things to measure that will show whether or not you are making progress towards the end goal.
  • Engage stakeholders with a shared vision when making a case for support with funders, policymakers, and donors.
  • Enable a review of why and how a programme or approach works and hence whether it is likely to work in other contexts.
  • Be a powerful tool when advocating for outdoor learning by demonstrating potential impact and the underlying evidence-based approach. 

Cite: Anderson, N (2020). Theory of Change. Institute for Outdoor Learning.



IOL Members can access the full article by Neal Anderson in the Knowledge Base

  • Benefits of a theory of change
  • Suggested applications for Outdoor Activity Instructors, Outdoor Learning Specialists, and Outdoor Learning Managers
  • Relevant Horizons articles
  • Example theories of change
  • Recommended websites for writing a theory of change



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