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MDF and Theory of Change

How can we carve a realistic path to long-term change in a complex environment? Theory of Change is a comprehensive methodology used for planning, monitoring and evaluation purposes. It helps to map the ideas and hypotheses or assumptions that an organisation holds about how change happens in a particular context. Acknowledging the complexity of social change, the methodology enables organisations to clarify the change process and – in many cases – identify interventions leading to change.

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In contrast to the logframe and other explanatory models, Theory of Change starts with the overall vision of success (or long-term goals) and works backwards to the necessary conditions in place to produce these goals. A thorough Theory of Change unravels and seeks evidence of all assumptions underlying these conditions. This method allows defining a sequence or pathway of interlinked events. This offers an excellent basis to define the best interventions (found from the perspective of the organisation, within the “sphere of control” in the Theory of Change) and identify feasible outcomes (within the “sphere of influence”) as well as long-term changes (within the “sphere of interest”). Accordingly, the Theory of Change evolves into a Results Framework. For monitoring and evaluation purposes, indicators can be developed for each step of the change process. A compact visual captures the Theory of Change and/or Results Framework obtained. This may be further refined and adjusted as the implementation proceeds, thus fitting into a cyclical learning model.

Theory of Change is systematic and comprehensive in three main respects:

  • Time horizon: the causal chain from interventions to long-term goals is substantiated.
  • Ideas: basic assumptions underlying each step of a programme are made explicit.
  • People: all relevant stakeholders give their perspectives on the desired change and reach a broad agreement on the underlying assumptions, conditions and concrete ways to create change.

How does MDF work with Theory of Change?

MDF has a solid track record in assisting organisations with the design and review of their Theory of Change in the various phases of programme development, including the baseline study, monitoring activities, mid-term and/or final evaluation.

Putting stakeholders at the core of the process, MDF preferably gathers the key stakeholders to jointly develop a Theory of Change. In the pragmatic and collaborative approach, characteristic for its work, MDF helps stakeholders to identify an overall vision, usually within a time horizon of 5-10 years, down to concrete interventions and specific outcomes. In this process, it becomes clear to all parties involved what change is necessary and by whom. MDF’s experience has shown that the dialogue and exchange between the partners/stakeholders are indeed essential to create not only a shared understanding but also a shared commitment to the project, thus enhancing ownership and transformative change.

If a Theory of Change is already available – as is often the case in comprehensive programmes – MDF further elaborates a generic and specific – for instance, country-based – form, which it submits for feedback and discussion from the stakeholders. The revised Theory of Change serves as a basis for programme strategy, monitoring and evaluation purposes. MDF regularly combines Theory of Change with Outcome Mapping, which allows designing an actor-based pathway of change.

In order to illustrate the dynamics of the Theory of Change, MDF works with Lotus Illustrations to create, such as the one outlined below for HIVOS - Regional Office Central America.


Online application

MDF co-developed an interactive Theory of Change online application together with Wageningen University, Business for Development, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and other key partners. This user-friendly and visually attractive tool helps all parties to involve and better demonstrate results and contribute more effectively to social change.

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