POLL: Does your program have a fully-developed theory of change?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a “disconnect” that I often see in the mentoring field: the difference between what programs say they can achieve through mentoring and what they actually do in practice. Now, most mentoring programs can obviously give a reasonable description of the goals of their program and some explanation of what mentors do to try and achieve those goals. And lord knows most programs have filled out a standard logic model templates for countless funding applications, articulating their inputs and outputs and listing an impressive array of meaningful desired “outcomes”(usually parroting back the goals of whatever funding they are applying for). But what I see less of in the field are true theories of change—models that detail the assumptions that go into a program’s activities and articulating exactly how the intervention goes about “moving the needle” toward an ultimate long-term outcome. I’ve seen many a program logic model attempt to translate activities into outcomes like “reduced teen pregnancy” or “high school completion” without really articulating how their activities would go about producing those results. The typical logic model is usually filled with unstated assumptions and caveats and leaps of faith. This is true of programs in many fields, but I think mentoring programs are especially susceptible to this since we know that mentoring can have very diverse impacts and the general belief that mentoring is an inherently positive thing. Why wouldn’t mentors be able to achieve whatever programs want to promise? The truth is that getting from activities to outcomes is a lot more complicated that we often want it to be. Which is why programs really should develop (and continually revise) a rock-solid theory of change. A theory of change model articulates all of the assumptions that go into your thinking about why your program works. It forces you work backwards from your long-term BIG outcomes to explain all of the preconditions that need to be met to move participants toward those outcomes. So if the ultimate goal for your mentees is, say, high school graduation, a theory of change model compels you to state the preconditions of a student graduating (and the preconditions for those), illustrating the points where your program intervenes to move the student toward that ultimate goal. Just as crucially, a theory of change also articulates where other factors, such as school-based academic programs or parent involvement, might come into play. To borrow an unfortunate phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, it makes you state your “known knowns” and your “known unknowns.” And in doing so, it paints a much clearer picture of what your program does and why you do them, the external things that influence your potential outcomes, and places where you can collect data to show progress. If your program is not generating the results you hoped for, a theory of change can illustrate where things need improvement. It also allows you to really explain to a funder exactly how your program works. This graphic, taken from the Aspen Institute’s Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change, illustrates what one of these models looks like (at a simplified scale): toc So I’m curious as to where our Chronicle readers stand on the use of theories of change. Is this something you have spent a lot of time developing and tweaking? Is it something you think about once in a while? Or is this a gap in your program design, indicating that you are perhaps relying on some untested assumptions? Please take our poll and let us know where you stand on the use of theories of change. If this appears to be a big area of need, we can dive deeper into this topic is a future Chronicle post. And if you have some good experiences or insights into developing a theory of change, please share your ideas in the comments section below.  

Does your program have a solid theory of change?

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5 Comments on "POLL: Does your program have a fully-developed theory of change?"

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  1. I found this thread today while searching on Google for “mentor theory of change”. While I found a few web sites that share their theory of change on line, I found too few.

    I hope the leaders of the mentoring movement will encourage more programs to put a TOC on their web site, and educate more donors to look for this in choosing who to fund.

    By sharing a TOC on-line each program enables every other program to learn from each other. The entire sector gets better, especially if funders begin to put operating dollars into supporting the infrastructure of on-going programs with a well defined Theory of Change.

    I know MENTOR is building a comprehensive database of programs. Would be great if this could be searched to find those who show their TOC on their web sites.

  2. I maintain a web library pointing to nearly 200 youth serving programs in the Chicago region who show some form of tutoring and/or mentoring in their activities. http://tinyurl.com/TMI-ChiProgramLinks

    In looking at these web sites very few show a theory of change and/or logic model on the sites.

    I created this “Shoppers Guide” pdf earlier this year to show some of the things I feel should be on a program’s web site if the goal of the web site is to attract volunteers, donors, and others who will help them offer their services on a continuous basis – http://tinyurl.com/TMI-ShoppersGuide

    I’ve piloted uses of visualizations to show my ideas of a “mentor-rich” program and a first-grade to first job pipeline. Many can be seen at http://www.pinterest.com/tutormentor

    Some of these graphics were created by interns working with me. I’d like to see similar graphics created by many other organizations, that visually communicate what we’re doing to help kids move through school and into jobs, and what support we need from business, media, politics, donors, etc. to succeed.

    It would be great if a team of researchers from one or more universities were going through program web sites to see how many of them provide all, or some, of the information suggested, or if there are other indicators that should be added to my list.

    It would also be great if we were educating donors to look at this information on a regular basis, so they would begin to use the organization web site as the grant proposal, and the daily stimulus provided by the media telling stories about violence, poverty, poor schools, workforce needs, etc., as motivators to provide program support on a regular and on-going basis.

  3. Tim Cavell says:

    Some might know the history of the mentoring program I study. It’s called Lunch Buddy mentoring (school-based mentoring during lunch). It was meant to be an inert control condition in an RCT that had an experimental condition that included a high-end community-based mentoring program (1 full semester of training before college students mentored an aggressive child for 3 successive semesters, with weekly supervision). We couldn’t use a no-treatment condition so we created a faux mentoring program that looked good but wouldn’t do a thing because we watered-down the relationship. And we all “knew” that if there was not a good relationship then no real change, right? Lunch Buddy mentors sat with mentees and all the other kids at the lunch table and very little intense “bonding” happened. Plus we changed out the mentor every semester so there were 3 different mentors! At 1- and 2-year follow-up, kids in the Lunch Buddy program were doing better as rated by teachers (behavior, academic competence).

    So Michael’s points about articulating a very specific theory of change and then testing that theory are very important. It’s how you’ll know if your mentoring program is faux or for real.

  4. Eric Diaz says:

    Having actively worked for several mentorship programs for 6 years, I’ve seen when a select number of mentees are not getting to their desired outcomes. A strategy i’ve found impactful as well as practical in the mentorship programs i’ve helped run is the ability to branch out and partner with other existing programs who can provide services for the needs of specific struggling mentees. A mentee was not going to graduate High School in a mentorship program I helped run and instead of re-inventing the wheel on GED classes, a mutual relationship was formed with an existing community organization to provide GED classes for this mentee. The mentee eventually graduated with his GED. The impact of mentoring was felt in the mentee’s life knowing now there exists a network of help for him that exists with our mentorship program. I believe this helps create community for mentees which is foundational for transforming mentorship.

  5. Liz Grenat says:

    Michael,
    Given the increased emphasis (and funding)on innovation to drive outcomes, I feel your topic is very important and timely. As a member of a national organization that has a researched theory of change, I think we continue to struggle both at the national and local level, with clearly articulating and linking interventions to outcomes. As you suggest above, perhaps the ongoing challenge lies in learning how to effectively revise, tweak and reflect on the model. Thanks for teeing this up.
    Liz Grenat – Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana

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