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Using Theory of Change to communicate charity impact

15 July 2022

Finding ways to demonstrate your charity’s impact both internally and externally is vital, but how best to do it? Theory of Change is just one of the options but some may think it sounds a bit, well, theoretical; something for academics or maybe your board of trustees. But in reality, it’s an approach that can help charity communicators find a clear, unifying message for more impactful internal and external communications.

What is Theory of Change?

In essence, it is a framework for organisations to plan, evaluate and communicate the change they are working to achieve in the world.

Originally developed in the 1990s Theory of Change has grown in popularity across the charity sector. For charity comms professionals, it’s a great framework for telling a clear and compelling story about the world your organisation is working to create. It can be a vital tool for brand campaigns, stakeholder engagement and internal comms and is something that whole teams can get involved with.

Take The Diana Award. In 2021, the team started working with young people, staff and partners to develop its Theory of Change. Like many charities, The Diana Award has a clearly defined purpose ‘to empower young people to make positive change’. And like many charities, it runs a wide range of programmes across the UK from an awards scheme to anti-bullying programme, mentoring support and mental health change programme, working with corporate, community and not-for-profit partners. Creating clarity of purpose across such a breadth of activity is a challenge for charity communicators. Applying Theory of Change principles helped the team find clarity in this complexity. Here’s how…

“Begin with the end in mind”

“Begin with the end in mind”, wrote business guru Stephen R. Covey’s in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Theory of Change helps an organisation move beyond individual programmes or campaigns and focus on the big picture of the positive change they want to create in the world. By starting with the long-term vision, charities can create a shared goal across projects and programmes, for staff, partners and supporters.

When The Diana Award developed its Theory of Change framework, we started with its vision that ‘young people are empowered to change the world’. Working back from that vision, the organisation identified the obstacles that young people face and what the organisation can do to help young people achieve their potential.

As charity communicators, we can embed this shared vision across all our activity. When The Diana Award launched its new five-year strategy ‘Future Forward’ last year, we asked young people and partners to write a letter to their future self. In these letters, each person shared the lessons from the present and imagined where they will be and what they will have achieved in five years’ time. By sharing these personal stories of hope, we created a compelling launch for the strategy and engaged supporters and partners.

Create a golden thread

One of the benefits of Theory of Change is that it creates a clear focus across your organisation on a single shared goal. To embed it effectively across your charity, each team will need to understand how their work contributes to that shared goal. For charity communicators, this challenges us to show the ‘golden thread’ running through our organisations.

At The Diana Award, the impact team has worked closely with programme and communications teams to shape the data that can be gathered to measure and demonstrate progress towards their shared vision. For example, for the Mentoring Programme, this includes measuring improvement in young people’s career readiness skills, confidence and motivation. This goes beyond outcome data for individual programmes and helps to create a shift from communicating about what we do to why we are doing it.

Take your supporters with you on the journey

For most charities, a Theory of Change model will focus on the long-term impact that you want to achieve. This can feel far away from where you and your supporters are now. To help maintain focus and keep supporters, partners and staff engaged, it’s helpful to share your roadmap and celebrate each step along the way. This should run through all your communications, from your annual impact report to brand campaigns and case studies. 

A good example of this is outcomes data – as it creates a solid foundation for communicating progress. For The Diana Award, this includes measuring changes in young people’s wellbeing using the World Health Organisation 5 wellbeing index – a globally recognised measure of psychological wellbeing. Alongside this data, The Diana Award has also been gathering individual stories of positive impact from young people who have been through their programmes. And partners are also sharing stories of how working with The Diana Award has supported them to achieve positive change. Together this combination of data and stories helps to build a compelling picture of change and show progress along the way. At the same time, for staff who are working hard in a challenging external environment, these stories reflect the meaningful impact of their work.

While Covid has shown us all that the world we work in is unpredictable, Theory of Change can help us all to share a clear vision for the future. At the recent CharityComms seminar on how charity communicators are changing the world, activist Brian Fitzgerald advocated for telling stories of hope to inspire supporters and show how change can be achieved. Theory of Change gives charities the framework to tell those stories of hope over the long term, demonstrating their role in creating positive change and bringing staff, partners and supporters on the journey.

For more inspiration on communicating impact check out Creatives Group: Creatively communicating impact on-demand.

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Banner Image: Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

Susan Fletcher

founder, Contented Communications

Susan helps charities and not-for-profit organisations tell their story with passion and purpose. Recent clients include The Diana Award, The Tree Council, Action for M.E., Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and the West of England Combined Authority. From communications strategy to campaign planning, tone of voice and content creation, she helps organisations to connect with audiences and achieve impact.