By Marshall Ganz, New Organizing Institute
The information below has been adapted from Organizing Workshop Participant Guides based on the works of Marshall Ganz of Harvard University and adapted by others.
A theory of change statement is a tool to understand your strategy and how (or if) it will work. Being able to articulate a clear theory of change statement is a prerequisite to an effective campaign.
A theory of change statement uses this format:
If we do (TACTICS) then (STRATEGIC GOAL or CHANGE) Because (REASON)
Theory of change statements should be clear for both the big and small picture (e.g. large scale on a national level, or small scale at the local level in electoral organizing).
Your theory of change is your hypothesis about how to organize your constituents’ resources to affect those who hold the resources/power to solve the problem.
- What would it take to get these different actors to take actions that further your strategic goal?
- At what point will they actually feel your constituents’ power?
- Who holds the resources and decision-making power needed to achieve that goal?
In the Montgomery Bus Boycott example, the theory of change could be written like this:
- If African Americans in Montgomery boycott the bus system then the bus company will desegregate the buses because the decrease in ridership will significantly impact their profits.
In a Canadian federal election, a theory of change could be written like this:
- If we turn out 6.2 million votes nationwide (~40%) then we will win a majority government because that will provide us with a plurality of votes in over 170 ridings needed to win.
- If we turn out more than 25,515 votes in Richmond Centre then our candidate will win the riding because that will provide us with over 50% of votes in the election in the riding.
Figuring Out How
Figuring out how to achieve a strategic goal – or even what goal is worth trying to achieve – requires developing a theory of change.
We all make assumptions about how change happens. Some people think that sharing information widely enough (or “raise awareness”) about a problem will change things. Others contend that if we just get all the “stakeholders” into the same room and talk with each others we’ll discover that we have more in common than that separates us and that will solve the problem. Still others think we just need to be smarter about figuring out the solution.
Community organizers focus on the community, their constituency, because they believe that unless the community itself develops its own capacity to solve the problem, it won’t remain solved. Another word for “capacity” is “power” or, as Dr. King defined it “the ability to achieve purpose.”
Power grows out of the influence that we can have on each other. If your interest in my resources is greater than my interest in your resources, I get some power over you – so I can use your resources for my purposes. On the other hand, if we have an equal interest in each other’s resources we can collaborate to create more power with each other to bring more capacity to bear on achieving our purposes than we can alone.
So the question is how to proactively organize our resources to shift the power enough to win the change we want, building our capacity to win more over time?
Since power is a kind of relationship, tracking it down requires asking four questions:
- What do WE want?
- Who has the RESOURCES to create that change?
- What do THEY want?
- What resources do WE have that THEY want or need?
If it turns out that we have the resources we need, but just need to use them more collaboratively, then it’s a “power with” dynamic. If it turns out that the resources we need have to come from somewhere else, then it’s a “power over” dynamic. So the question is how our constituency can use its resources in ways that will create the capacity it needs to achieve the goal.
IF we do this, THEN that will likely happen. Test this out with a series of “If-Then” sentences.
Once you are satisfied you are ready to articulate your organizing sentence: “We are organizing WHO to achieve WHAT (goal) by HOW (theory of change) to achieve what CHANGE ”
- To download template – See pgs 78 – 79 Organizing Participant Guide, Marrakesh, Morocco, Marshall Ganz, adapted by Abel Cano
Information sourced from
- pgs 72, 78-79 of Organizing Participant Guide, Marrakesh, Morocco, Marshall Ganz, adapted by Abel Cano
- pg 35 of Organizing: People, Power and Change (Guide) (Available in English, Spanish & Turkish)
Restrictions of Use
The following work [this workshop guide] is provided to you pursuant to the following terms and conditions. Your acceptance of the work constitutes your acceptance of these terms:
- You may reproduce and distribute the work to others for free, but you may not sell the work to others.
- You may not remove the legends from the work that provide attribution as to source (i.e., “originally adapted from the works of Marshall Ganz of Harvard University”).
- You may modify the work, provided that the attribution legends remain on the work, and provided further that you send any significant modifications or updates to [email protected] or Marshall Ganz, Hauser Center, Harvard Kennedy School, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
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- Article – Theories of Change, Change Agency
- Theories of Change resources, Commons Library
- Video – Theory of Change: How to Resist, Americans Take Action (24:05 mins)
- Video – Story of Now – Theory of change (5:26 mins)
This video provides an explanation of the Theory of Change using a specific and real example.
- Video – Theory of Change, ChangeMakers Organising School (44:49 mins)
To kick off season three we discuss the concept of theory of change. Theory of change is a broadly used term to describe the process by which movements or organisations conceive how they will achieve the change they mean. In the first half, Isabella Morand will break this down by using the ‘Strategies of People Power’ that we have presented earlier (playing by the rules, mobilising, organising, prefigurative and parties). In the second half we will have three presenters dig into the ‘organising’ theory of change (after all, we are an organising school!). We were pleased to welcome Rachel Cowcher from Amnesty International (who organise local groups around issues based change), David Barrow from the Sydney Alliance (who organise organisations around shared values) and Alex Morales from the United Workers Union (who organise constituencies around collective interest!). They’ll be unpacking their different approaches to Organising to help you reflect on your own theories of change. You can see the recording of this session here and the slides here.