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Theory of change

How does change happen?
4 min read
Last update: Mar 2, 2023

Theory of Change is a methodology for developing strategies as well as for evaluation. The model of ToC identifies the preconditions needed for a certain change to occur. You can use this model to develop a strategy by defining a long-term goal and working backwards by formulating preconditions and anticipated outcomes.

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A Theories of Change (ToC) ecosystem


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There are many theories as to how social and political change happen. For instance, some people think that the most effective way to make change happen is to vote, even while accepting that there is corruption inherent to representative democracies.

Others (for instance key strategists in Extinction Rebellion UK) think that the research shows that when it comes to large-scale change, non-violent civil disobedience is the proven way to make it happen, especially when the change needs to happen quickly. Within this perspective, some strategists argue that it is only by โ€˜filling jailsโ€™ and thus overwhelming the authorities, that governments will give in to the demands of large activist movements. There are also different theories as to how to fill the jails. The literature shows that only 1-3.5% of a population needs to be actively involved in civil disobedience for a movement like this to succeed -but the broader population also needs to be generally sympathetic.(Of course, not all movements with this level of participation do succeed).

When it comes to the climate crisis, some people argue that since James Hansen warned the US government of the impending crisis in 1988, years of conventional voting, lobbying, political campaigning, petition signing and marching around the world have failed to stop carbon emissions from increasing -therefore these methods have failed, and only mass civil disobedience will now work.

However a more nuanced theory of change could be that yes, civil disobedience on the climate (and related eco and social justice issues) is now needed, but all the conventional methods are still needed too, as things could be even worse without them, and some people will never use civil disobedience until they really really have to. So even if we want to focus on civil disobedience to make change, we would be foolish to turn our backs on more conventional activists who may at least be willing to publicise our cause(s). (This is one point of view).

Additionally, if you are campaigning on a much smaller issue, conventional methods may be enough.

As activists it may be a good idea to develop and work from an ecosystem of Theories of Change (ToC). Once we have at least a basic idea of the possible different ways of making change and how they could work together, then we are in a better position to choose and define our strategy / tactics.

ToC Ecosystem -definition

This is a working definition so feel free to improve it!

A Theories of Change ecosystem is an interconnected, constantly growing understanding and toolkit, of theories of changemaking that appreciate that social and political change can happen in many different ways, allowing for the preference (including research-based) for one type of change, and also including the understanding that we are in a unique moment of human history i.e. change never happens in exactly the same way twice.

Ideas for workshopping

Here are some ideas for work-shopping or discussing with your activist friends and contacts:

  1. If you do one kind of activism, how can you do it in a way which draws in support from other kinds of activists? How can this be reflected in your strategy?

  2. Could the type of activism that you do actually change to be a โ€˜hybridโ€™ type that includes different kinds of activism and therefore different ways of making change? For general types of activist strategy, see this page.


External resources

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Examples of theories of change:

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