Tag Archives: theory of change

by Floyd Rumohr

Mr. Spock is Star Trek’s indelible archetype of logic on the Starship Enterprise.

Logic is an organization’s description of the cause and effect relationship between what goes into a nonprofit program and what comes out of it. 

Logical thinking is always important but especially so during periods of downturn, recession, and shrinking resources because, without it, otherwise well-intended organizations may deviate from mission and purpose with disastrous results.

Picture it: a largely but not entirely hypothetical nonprofit literacy organization, which I’ll call “ORG,” was founded to fund other charitable groups but loses its primary source of revenue from a single funder after about fifteen years of operation.

ORG scrambles to find new sources of revenue by, among other things, contracting with schools to become a competitor with organizations it previously funded. While ORG isn’t new to the field, it is new to direct services and in this way has cannibalized the organizations it helped build. Sad to say, but this “eating of its young” is an “outcome” or “impact” of its activities.

There’s not much logic in that. Were logic involved, ORG might not have pursued the course it did. By severely reducing grant making activities, establishing new programs, increasing the size of its development department, and creating new accounts receivable systems and staff to manage earned income, the number of children who successfully completed literacy programming went from 14,000 to 4,000.

Decreased numbers of children learning to read and write are just the tip of the iceberg to ORG’s ferociously flawed logic. Some previously funded exemplary organizations did not survive withdrawal of its funding and dissolved. Others sputtered along and were forced to make dramatic cuts to programming. It’s no surprise that fewer children received help.

So why did ORG do what it did? There are many plausible answers not the least of which is a desire to sustain a worthwhile organization. Life cycles can be hard to accept for us humans who form emotional attachments to organizations and programs that have outlived their effectiveness.

What, then, would have been a more logical course for ORG to take? Perhaps it could have become a leaner technical assistance organization to the nonprofits it once supported if it aimed to sustain itself. If not, a graceful dissolution could have been rolled out. In this case, multi-year grants could have been provided to the agencies it once supported by exhausting its remaining endowment. Either mission would have been a more logical alternative given ORG’s primary purpose.

Where was ORG’s logic flawed? An organization’s logic model connects the time, money, effort and other resources spent on its programs to its outputs, outcomes, and impact. ORG’s theory of change, which according to Ian David Moss “‘unpacks’ the processes and factors that lead to successful outcomes exposing relationships between isolated variables that can then become the subject of research or evaluation” might explain what happened. ORG suffered less from fewer children served and more on inappropriate building blocks, such as creating an entirely new competing program, to achieve that long term goal.

A healthy logic model is one in which the allocation of time and money supports outcomes/impact that build competitive advantage. An unhealthy cycle is one in which resources are spent on activities that ultimately diminish impact. While ORG was able to sustain itself, for example, it did so at the expense of the field it once supported and had less impact on the very children it was founded to help.

In your organization or the groups with which you work: is there a high correlation between how it spins its input wheels and superior impact? Is the organization’s mission directly linked to observable outcomes? If so, have at it! If not, it might be time to diagram the cause and effect relationships between the inputs, activities, and outcomes. An equally important question: How do you know inputs and activities are causally connected to impact? 

Next up: evaluation.

References and recommended reading: