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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