Growing an organization requires regular stock taking to ensure that daily operations continue to align with the mission and impact.
Seven years into the Lab’s journey, our global staff recently spent several months revisiting our Theory our Change. Over the years, the Lab has had several iterations of our Theories of Change (because we believe that it’s a living tool that should inform our ongoing work). In light of increased expansion in terms of geography, staff capacity and the variety of programs through which we engage with communities, it became important to pause, reflect and ideate around our impact as a team.
With support from the Open Society Foundations, we began in September by unpacking the assumptions around our work. We also researched which other organizations have carried out this process well and have great ToCs that clearly explain their work- for example, we liked Namati’s clean simple diagram; and we liked the way ShelterBox predicated inputs, outputs and outcomes on certain assumptions and pre-conditions. It’s fair to say that the process of revising our ToC wasn’t easy. Inevitably, while an organization’s mission, vision and impact might be clear, individuals frequently hold differing assumptions about the work. Beyond the technical deep-dive to distil our work into a clear and simple diagram and AL Theory of Change 2019 Explained we also learned three key lessons:
- Refining a Theory of Change never ends
At several points in the process we felt that our work was done, only to take one more look and realize that our thoughts may not translate to a larger audience. We took turns re-visiting and editing both the graphic depiction and accompanying narrative to ensure that it represent the full breadth of our work. We also learned that it probably won’t ever feel perfect but at some stage, we have to send it out into the world and see how it lands. And we’re going to sense check the ToC every six months across the organization, and adapt it accordingly.
- Drawing boxes around work can be hard, but it’s worth it
Fitting our diverse program offerings into limited output and outcome boxes was hard. This experience isn’t unique to organizations that are in a start-up phase, eager to prove themselves within the space and build a body of work to leverage future support. While the diversity of our programming can be seen as a strength, the exercise of building our new Theory of Change gave us the opportunity to evaluate which parts of our work still fit with our mission, which ones need to be re-geared, and which ones we may need to bring to an end.
- Avoiding the tyranny of jargon
In crafting language for both the graphic and narrative ToC, we were very tempted to fall into the jargon trap. At the end of the day it is important to go through an extended ‘re-languaging’ process so that everyone- both within the organization and outside- can buy into the new approach and actually use it when thinking about our work. We hope to prioritize and nurture the deep buy-in to our mission that exists within our teams- the ToC is just a tool to help us do that over time.