Visualizing Theories of Change

By Lydia Hooper, Oct 05, 2021

theory of change

Theories of change are helpful tools for professionals working in the social sector. They are meant to describe what social impact organizations are hoping to have, and to explain why they are making the specific efforts they are to cause the intended results.

At Venngage, we know visuals are critical for helping people understand and remember important ideas, especially complex ones. So while it can be challenging to visualize theories of change, these visuals can provide the coherent picture that is necessary to engage stakeholders and thus make change more possible.

Want to visualize your organization’s theory of change but have no design experience? No worries. Anyone can create visuals using Venngage’s easy-to-edit templates and drag-and-drop editor.


 

Table of contents:

 

What is a theory of change and what is it for?

A theory of change is a dynamic tool that organizations in the social sector (nonprofits, foundations, social enterprises, etc.) use to explain:

  • The people they serve/empower
  • What they do and how they do it
  • Why they do it: the impact they expect to have

Here’s an example of how a theory of change process could be like if it’s exploring the intended outcomes and impacts that an organization sets out to improve a child’s well-being:

theory of change


 

Rather than describing organizational change (the change that happens inside the organization, which is part of traditional change management), it describes the change that happens in society.

As you can tell from the example, a theory of change process is a comprehensive description of how an organization is looking to effect changes, by outlining causal linkages (early outcomes, intermediate outcomes and long-term outcomes) and the overall intended impact of identified changes.

Theories of change are essential for organizations that are seeking to have some social impact to be successful.

They can help staff and stakeholders:

  • Clarify what progress and success looks like, and what it takes to get there
  • Identify resources needed, and/or other factors that may affect success
  • Define what the organization is able to influence, and what they are not
  • Know what data to collect, and how to use data to make decisions that improve results

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What does a good theory of change look like?

A theory of change should be iterative—it should change over time based on what the organization learns.

It shouldn’t be:

  • A way to tightly package up what the organization is already doing
  • A “check-the-box” task done simply to satisfy funders or investors
  • A document that sits on a shelf (or buried in shared files)
  • A fixed concept that limits innovation

A theory of change needs to be meaningful. Does it describe how the organization is meeting an important need? Does it provide a big-picture perspective on how and why social change is happening? Does it do so in a complete, compelling and persuasive way?

theory of change


 

While it should be captivating, a theory of change should also be credible. This means it isn’t based on conjecture, underlying assumptions, or preconceived ideas. It is informed by experience, evidence, insight and/or relevant research.

The theory is more likely to be plausible when it’s grounded in data. It should describe the resources that are needed to make the change possible. This includes:

  • financial or other material supports
  • stakeholders and supporters
  • timelines for activities and results

Above all, a theory of change should be useful. It should be a tool that helps the organization track and measure outcomes and progress over time. It should specify what will be measured and how, as well as how these measurements will inform decisions and future actions.

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How to develop a theory of change

Developing a theory of change takes considerable, concentrated effort. This is why organizations often hire evaluators as employees or consultants to help them articulate and act upon logical frameworks.

From data collection to change theory visualization, here are the 7 basic steps to develop a theory of change:

theory of change


 

The remainder of this article will focus on this last step, one that may be easy to overlook but is key, especially to stakeholder engagement and thus overall success.

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Why it’s important to visualize your theory of change

Once an organization has done the work to articulate their theory of change, there will be a number of people interested in understanding it. Funders or investors will want to see that the organization has done their research, board and staff members will want to align on goals and expectations, and people in the community may want to assess how accountable and trustworthy the organization is.

For the theory of change to be meaningful and useful, it needs to be articulated in a way that is easy to understand and act upon. Some organizations create lengthy documents, while others seek to present their framework in a concise but often complicated visual diagram, like these examples:

As you can see from the examples above, one of the biggest challenges in the entire process of creating a theory of change is that it’s too easy to create visual diagrams that fail to provide a coherent or adequate picture of the theory of change, according to a report from UNICEF. This is why often people compile comprehensive narratives, but too often these are equally hard to understand.

A clear and compelling visualization of a theory of change takes some thoughtful consideration, but it can serve an important purpose and is well worth the effort. According to research, visuals not only help people better remember and recall ideas, they can also increase motivation, which is an important ingredient for any kind of social change.

 

Why it can be challenging to visualize a theory of change

One of the reasons that it can be so challenging to create an effective visualization of a theory of change is because it often needs to serve multiple audiences, multiple purposes, or both.

Some stakeholders will look for the nitty-gritty details, but the visual should serve the purpose of helping everyone see the big picture. It’s easy to make a visual that is either too simplistic or overly complicated, as is often the case with informational graphics in general. It takes practice to learn how to strike a balance, so the visual describes the theory fully but doesn’t overwhelm the viewer.

This infographic separates the problem and the impact from the rest of the theory of change, making it easier for the audience to understand the whole story. The use of color-coding to differentiate between areas involved in outputs or outcomes also make the infographic a lot easier to follow through:

theory of change


 

Sometimes organizations want to use visual metaphors as well, like this example which uses the metaphors of rain and soil:

But using metaphors can be tricky. Rather than making it easier to understand, they can make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Plus, some audiences will connect with some metaphors more than others. Sometimes stakeholders can become so enraptured with a metaphor that they have a hard time letting it go, even when it is no longer useful.

Metaphors can also be difficult to convey visually, especially if you haven’t dedicated yourself to such practice as professional designers have.

In fact, this is the main way that a professional designer or visual practitioner can be a useful partner.

Sometimes organizations mistakenly think that they need a pro in order to create a well-designed digital graphic because they are intimidated by design software.

That makes some sense, because when it comes to software, it can be hard to find the right one—it needs to be flexible enough to allow for complexity as well as beauty. The good news is that this is the sweet spot that Venngage sits in perfectly, with thousands of gorgeous business-relevant templates, an easy-to-use editor, and even the ability to allow for multiple contributors to collaborate on a shared design.

venngage real time collaboration

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How to visualize your theory of change

Now that you know why your organization needs not only to produce a theory of change but also to visualize it, I’ll break down the best process for you to use to thoughtfully create the visual that will make the difference.

1. Know your audience

It helps tremendously to know from the start who you hope will see your organization’s theory of change and be moved by it.

What do you expect they will be most looking for? How can you make sure the lasting impression that your visual makes on them will be one that helps your organization better succeed?

Understand your audience and what speaks to them is critical in helping you shape the message and create the visual content that will catch their attention and keep them engaged:

Ideal User Persona Guide Report Template


 

When you get down in the creative rabbit hole, which may be inevitable, your clarity about your audience will be your guiding light, so get a solid sense of this before you even begin.

2. Outline the main components

Also before you start your visualization, you should have at least a rough outline of the basic components of your organization’s theory of change:

  • Inputs, such as human, material or financial resources
  • Activities and timelines
  • Outputs, such as the number of people trained, meals served, etc.
  • Outcomes, long-term and intermediate
  • Intended impact

If it makes sense, you could also outline things like:

  • Community need and context
  • How stakeholders will collaborate
  • The process by which the theory of change was developed
  • List of/links to additional resources, such as an evaluation framework

While these lists are not exhaustive, keep in mind that the best visuals contain limited text so that they are easier to read.

You do not need to include every bit of information in your visual, and in fact you probably shouldn’t.

Your visual will likely be a summary, and you can provide more in-depth explanations in other documents, if that’s desired. The purpose of your outline at this point is to give you an idea of what types of content you know you’ll want to include.

3. Select an appropriate format

You will want your viewers to be able to follow the logic in your theory of change, so choose a basic visual format that suits your theory.

Linear formats may be horizontal, vertical, or snake-shaped, like these:

theory of change


 

theory of change


 

These are super easy to read and easy to make so are great if you are new to visualizing, if your audience is new to the topic, and/or if your theory is a relatively straightforward A to Z. On the left or top should be the inputs and activities, with outcomes and impacts on the bottom or right.

For more examples of linear templates in the form of process infographics or flowcharts, read:

Cyclical formats are also easy to make and read, but they are only suitable if they would help your audience to understand a foundational feedback loop or several foundational parts of a whole.

Here are a couple templates showing cycles, like this one about Lewin’s change model:

theory of change


 

Or this one which describes the insurance claim process, but you can always customize it to visualize your theory of change model:

theory of change


 

Complex flows can be more difficult to make in a way that isn’t difficult for people who are new to the topic to understand. They are most appropriate if your audience has more advanced knowledge and/or if you have a lot of practice making clear and effective diagrams.

If you are tempted to use this format because you think your theory is complex, then consider whether it’s important to others that they understand the complexity or if that’s maybe just your preference.

If this is indeed the best solution, you might try one of our smart templates, which you can easily customize to include as many parts as is appropriate:

theory of change


 

Once you have an idea of which of these will suit your theory, audience, and skill level best, you have a couple of options for what to do next.

You can sketch out some rough ideas with pen and paper (or stylus and tablet), or you can peruse a template library to get some ideas.

Regardless of which of these you choose, try not to get distracted by details like color or icons yet, those will come later.

4. Prep content for conciseness and clarity

Now it’s time to leap over the most thorny hurdle: Summarizing information so it’s visually friendly.

This is when you’ll need to remember your audience and what matters to them. Go through your text and be bold. Highlight the text that is key, and strike out any text that’s descriptive fluff or that doesn’t directly support the highlighted information.

You can read our post on how to summarize information for your visuals, or watch our free webinar:

how to summarize information


 

Now you can use your edited copy and the visual format you selected to put together a rough draft. If you can, try to keep this draft basic and in black in white.

5. Ask for stakeholder feedback

Before you get lost in details like colors, icons, arrows, etc., take an opportunity to check in with your audience. This is the step that usually gets skipped, and it’s why so many theory of change visualizations fail.

The goal at this stage is NOT to impress your audience. It’s to help you improve your visualization. If you’re lucky, you might get to know your audience better too.

Before you’re more deeply invested in your design, your audience can tell you whether the visual format and the text you are working with are working for them. They can also tell you what you need to change to make it better. Different people will have different opinions to offer, so make sure you ask the people who matter most.

6. Polish your design with visual elements

Once you have a clearer idea of what you need to change, you are ready to bring your design closer to completion. You might need to go back to an earlier step, or you may be able to make small changes to your text or flows.

This is the stage where you can finally begin to think about the bells and whistles you likely associate with the word “design” or “visualization.” You will likely want to use your organization’s brand colors, and you might choose to add some icons or photos from an organizational library.

If you’re using Venngage to visualize your theory of change, you can add images, icons and illustrations to your design in just several clicks. We offer 40,000+ icons and illustrations as well as 3+ million stock images to help you visualize any ideas you need:

You can add brand colors or logos to your theory of change visual by using My Brand Kit as well. Load your branding elements to your brand kit:

Autobrand

And apply them to your design in one click:

venngage brand kit application

If you really want to wow some folks with your final visualization, then plan to go through another round of soliciting feedback, again only with the goal of learning. Talk to different people this time and ask them if there’s anything else they suggest you rethink.

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Summary: Visualize your theory of change to make sure you’re on the right track to effect social change

A good theory of change is indispensable for organizations looking to create social change, and an effective visualization of this theory is the critical icing on the cake.

Remember, your organization’s theory of change should be meaningful and useful. By providing your stakeholders with a clear and compelling “picture” of your theory, you will help them not only remember your theory of change, but take the actions that move it from theory to reality.

If you’re an organization looking to create and visualize a theory of change, you can start by customizing the templates above, or register for a free Venngage account and look through our abundance of templates. No design experience required.


 

 

About Lydia Hooper

Lydia Hooper has a decade of experience as an information designer, and has worked with and for more than 50 national, state, and local organizations. She led a team to win bronze in the national Civic Data Challenge in 2013. Her writing on data visualization and information design has also been published by Data Visualization Society, UX Collective, SAGE Publishing’s MethodSpace and Evergreen Data. Lydia has also designed and facilitated workshops for dozens of organizations including American Institute of Graphic Arts-Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Chapters of the Association for Talent Development and the Society for Technical Communication.