• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • Dokkio Sidebar (from the makers of PBworks) is a Chrome extension that eliminates the need for endless browser tabs. You can search all your online stuff without any extra effort. And Sidebar was #1 on Product Hunt! Check out what people are saying by clicking here.



Page history last edited by Brian Hill 14 years, 7 months ago

Theories of Social Change


Resources are listed alphabetically by institutional author, despite a diversity in their subject matter and length. The advantage of this arrangement is that it highlights the origins of the various schools of thought.


For each school of thought, the goal is to find a key exposition of that school of thought and briefly describe it. If at all possible, include a web link to an electronic copy of the exposition.


Feel free to liberally edit my admittedly occasionally acerbic and possibly uninformed commentary. I posted this to provoke dialog as well as to be the beginnings of a compendium. ~Brian Hill



The Advocacy Institute and Oxfam America


  • These two organizations have put out "Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Action and Reflection Guide." The book is in three parts each written by a different author.
  • Part I, Chapter 2, on Social Movement Advocacy (pp. 11-31) may be the most relevant part of the guide.
  • Part II, Chapter 5 on Strategy Development (pp. 59-67) is also very relevant and written at a more practical (workshop and exercise-oriented) rather than theoretical fashion.
  • Part III is the longest part of the guide and is a collection of case studies.


Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change


  • If Google's rankings are accepted as the arbiter, then the Aspen Institute practically owns the term "Theory of Change" (and they snagged the domain name too!).
  • The Aspen Institute and various authors associated with it have produced a lot of documents. The key one is the Aspen Institute Theory of Change Guide. This document is pretty darn long (37 pages). I attempt to abstract it....
  • In this school of thought, a theory of change "explains how a group of early and intermediate accomplishments sets the stage for producing long-range results."
  • The "preconditions" and "intermediate outcomes" are identified in campaign planning. These terms can be used interchangeably.
  • When each precondition has been met, the long-term outcome becomes achievable, if not nearly inevitable. It is as if all the preconditions were such as to set rolling a round stone on a mountain thousands of feet in height a la Sun Tzu.
  • Their theory of change and of campaign planning is therefore reduced to the practice of identifying the set of preconditions that are both necessary and sufficient for achieving the long-term outcome. They plan "interventions" that will effect the preconditions. They identify "indicators" to measure the progress toward achieving the preconditions.
  • You can see that this doesn't really amount to a complete theory of change. It is very much like having kinematics without dynamics (kinematics is the study of motion without regard for the cause). To the extent that it is a theory, it is simply the assertion that large, long-term outcomes are decomposable and achievable through smaller, intermediate outcomes. This assertion is neither dramatic and original nor a truism. It is somewhere in between. Operationally, one may have no choice but to accept it, since one cannot in any case directly achieve large, long-term outcomes.
  • They capture all of the kinematic information pictorially in a figure that looks superficially similar to a power map. They call such a figure a "pathway of change." See electronic page 9 (document page 6) of their guide for a template "pathway of change."
  • They summarize the core elements of their theory of change as follows:
    • A pathway of change that illustrates the relationship between a variety of outcomes that are each thought of as preconditions of the long-term goal.
    • Indicators that are defined to be specific enough to measure success.
    • Interventions that are used to bring about each of the preconditions on the pathway, and at each step of the pathway.
    • Assumptions that explain why the whole theory makes sense!
  • Later in the document they emphasize the importance of specificity and the pitfalls of vagueness in defining the long-term outcome:
    • Vague outcome statements lead to fuzzy thinking about what needs to be done to reach them.
    • Vague outcome statements sabotage the ability to build a consensus about what is important in terms of programming and allocating funds.
    • Vague outcome statements make it difficult to figure out how to develop a measurement strategy to tell when and if they have been achieved.
    • As an example, "protect consumers from pesticide residues" would be an overly vague long-term outcome. "Ban trichloropoisonya in the United States" would be a specific long-term outcome." Another very specific outcome which can be viewed as an achievement of its own or a precondition to longer-term and even bigger things would be "get trichloropoisonya onto California's Prop 65 list."


CARE (via the Asia-Pacific Alliance)



Data Center


  • The Data Center's mission is to support organizing efforts led by "poor and working class people of color." Although this scope excludes a large fraction of those involved in pesticide issues, since there are huge race and class issues in farming in general and pesticide risk management in particular, it is important to understand and incorporate the Data Center's thinking.
  • The name of their organization is a bit odd given their mission, but the core of their support is in the areas of "democratizing research" and "campaign research," and within that context the organization name makes more sense.
    • Try reading their "About" web page to get more of an idea of their basic concept of "democratizing research." Community survey design is one of the things they support under this category.
    • Try starting with their "Research Tools" page to get more of an idea of what they mean by "campaign research." Helping understand who funds your opposition would be a prototypical example of what they would support under this category.


Grassroots Policy Project


  • The Asia-Pacific Alliance posted the text of one of the Grassroots Policy Project's very relevant documents.


Midwest Academy


  • These folks are some of the heaviest hitters in the U.S. organizing world, by general reputation and more specifically, according to the Wikipedia, by having "trained many leading labor unionists, community, and grass roots activists."
  • These folks have a labor and community organizing focus.
  • Their manual, "Organizing for Social Change," is a standard reference for organizing.
  • Part I, Chapter 4 on Developing a Strategy (pp. 20-32) is probably the closest the manual comes to exposing a theory of change.
  • They give 5-day courses around the country.


Planning and Evaluation Resource Center (PERC)


  • Check this out. I stumbled on them while googling for something else, and have not yet had time to read much. The eye-catching thing is their integration of theories of change to planning and evaluation.


Stanford Graduate School of Business


  • "Creating High-Impact Nonprofits" is available at this page. Click on "download pdf."
  • The document isn't really about theory of change per se. It is more about the characteristics of effective organizations.

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