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Theory of Change? We Prefer Proof

Get crisp and clear about what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it

By Donald Summers

Here we go. It’s time to load the critique cannon, aim it, and fire at yet another fluffy management concept that presents itself as a practical tool. It goes under the label “Theory of Change,” and it even has its own nonprofit and website

“Theory of Change” strikes me as yet another in a long line of mostly ineffective management and organizational concepts and tools purporting to help the deeply stagnated social sector where only a couple hundred non-profits have reached even modest levels of scale in the last 50 years.

As Mark Hass observes in a great article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the sector is rife with consultants pushing management fads like these, which also include “communication applications, revenue-generating platforms, talent-management systems, and leadership development.”

The social sector is filled with great programs, but very few organizations have figured out how to grow their programs to reach necessary scale. This is astonishing. There are proven, battle-tested growth tools and strategies that organizations have perfected over the past century. They litter the pages of the Harvard Business Review, and brilliant folks like Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, and Ichak Adizes have been documenting organizational and management best practices for decades. 

But (except by us and a precious few others) these tools aren’t getting used in the nonprofit sector because some “experts” keep pretending that the social sector is a parallel universe that needs unique approaches. Proven, tried-and-true methods and tools around business planning, revenue, finance, continuous quality improvement, performance evaluation, and such things just aren’t relevant.  

So they come up with new theories. All of which would get laughed out of a boardroom at a high performing company. It’s happened to me. I used to be a naive nonprofit staffer, taking fancy plans to people and asking for money. And I got my butt kicked because my thinking was sloppy. “Look, kid, if you want my money, my passion, my engagement in your important cause, don't bring me some friggin’ complicated unproven theory. Life is too short.”

Looking through the “Theory of Change” website, I don't see any examples of problems solved or organizations reaching scale. (If you see any, please, let me know – if this stuff works, I will totally eat my words. This is about effectiveness, not ego.)

They talk about how many members they have and how spectacular and powerful the work is – lots of words – but I don't see any numbers or other hard facts proving to me that “theory of change” solves problems and helps organizations. Where are the growth deltas? The social sector needs serious tools and methodologies with a proven track record, not what looks like a lot quasi-academic farrago.

Business plans? They work. Financial projections, metrics and milestones? They grow companies, whether they are for- or nonprofit. Smart goals and high-ROI revenue strategies? Those work, too. Your tax status is irrelevant. Dashboards and pipelines? Yup, it all works. No theory required. 

The truth is, after you boil down all the fluff, what the Theory of Change people are really trying to say is this: get crisp and clear about what you are trying to do and how you do it. We love that! But when you look at their examples, you see almost nothing in the way of hard goals, metrics, or finance – just a lot of fancy diagrams. I may not always be the brightest guy in the room, but I hacked my way through college, and I can’t understand any of this stuff.  

And I think I understand why. Go ahead and look through this organization's staff and advisory board. You’ll find a list of lovely people: brilliant academics and policy experts. I'm sure I'd enjoy having drinks with every one of them. I'm not out to disparage anyone or make anyone feel bad.

But I don't see a single person with a serious track record of starting, growing and running enterprises. So what are they doing dispensing business advice? Diagrams like these would last about 10 seconds in a pitch meeting before folks started using them for target practice. 

People who make big decisions and invest large sums of money are looking for clear, concise, robust opportunities to create positive change, not narrative fluff and fancy diagrams. 

The world doesn’t need theory. It needs solutions.  So let’s focus instead on SMART goals, strategy, revenue, finance, staffing, governance, marketing, or other performance or growth-critical domains. Write a business plan with some scary BHAGs, and back it up with your dashboard and your revenue pipeline. And show me what the software industry calls an MVP – minimum viable product. Treat people like smart, impatient investors, not an audience you want to baffle with extensive narrative.

Bottom line? If I'm an investor, and you come to me with a theory, I will tell you to come back to me with proof. Theory is for academics. Compelling proof that something works is what drives investment and scale. And investment and scale changes the world. 

Donald Summers founded Altruist Partners in 2006. He is a social entrepreneur, speaker, author and management consultant with a long track record of helping organizations achieve dramatic increases in organizational effectiveness and growth. Summers@altruistpartners.com

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