At its most basic level, a theory of change visually depicts the relationship between an organization’s strategies and intended impacts. It may sound like common sense: If you want to get to X, you should know what Ys you have to do to get there.
Too often, however, organizations are unclear about what they are trying to accomplish, what progress is actually being made, or what external factors might be influencing their work. By having groups first clarify their long-term goals and then work backwards to describe what it will take to get there, a theory of change can be an extremely effective strategic and evaluative tool. Since the concept was first articulated by social scientists in the 1990s, it has gained a growing following among social change organizations, government agencies, philanthropies, and other groups that want to better understand and evaluate the impact of their work.
At VentureWell, our theory of change depicts what we aim to achieve by both illustrating our pathways of support and outlining the connections between our work with innovators, higher education institutions, and other partners in innovation and entrepreneurship. That kind of shared sense of direction can be particularly beneficial for an organization such as VentureWell with a large and broad portfolio of work. Our theory of change provides our staff with common language to describe our work, as well as a more specific understanding of how we impact innovators and the ecosystems that support them on their venture development journeys.
We used our theory of change to guide recent evaluation studies of our Faculty Grant and E-Teams programs. It helped us to identify our hypotheses around what kinds of impacts we should be looking for in our programs, and to determine the extent to which we have been successful.