The 24 most common Theories of Change

In our evaluation work we often have to reconstruct the hidden theories of change under by organisations and programmes. Whilst these are different for each case, they tend to reflect a relatively small number of underlying social science theories.

Here is our list of the 24 main theories of change that we come across most frequently.

Theories relating to structure

  1. Organizational Outflanking: Change happens when groups organize more effectively than the incumbent power holders
  2. Grassroots mobilization: Change happens through supporting effective local organization
  3. Punctuated Equilibrium: Change happens in great leaps through major policy shifts
  4. Evidence-based (rational) policy: Change happens through providing policy makers with evidence and policy options
  5. Power elites: Change happens through changing the calculation for political and economic power holders
  6. Advocacy Coalition: Change happens when multiple stakeholding groups combine forces
  7. Strategic partnerships: Change happens through developing alliances and coalitions of organizations
  8. Agenda setting: Change happens through influencing the popular media and political agenda
  9. Economic Modernity: Change happens as society gets wealthier and people demand greater accountability
  10. Economic resilience and innovation: Change happens through providing people with the tools to save and invest
  11. Structured supply and demand: Change happens by linking suppliers and consumers with markets
  12. Safety nets: Change happens when we limit people’s exposure to risk
  13. Cultural Modernity: Change happens as societies adopt secular, individualistic and emancipatory worldviews
  14. Participation: Change happens through engagement, dialogue and inclusion of groups
  15. Education: Change happens through spreading understanding of the arts and sciences
  16. Good Governance: Change happens when governments are democratically accountable and responsive to citizens
  17. Institutional design: Change happens through improving the capacity of organizations and arrangement of institutions (rules-of-the-game)
  18. Messaging theory (nudge): Change happens through exposing people to information in a way that guides them to decisions that are most likely to be in their interest

Theories relating to agency

  1. Access to Information: Change happens when individuals gain access to knowledge about their situations and environment
  2. Use of technologies: Change happens through enabling people to access and use information and communication technologies
  3. Critical Consciousness: Change happens when a critical mass of people understand they are repressed and rise up against the repression
  4. Cultivating champions: Change happens through enhancing the awareness and interest of publics in understanding the structures that affect their lives
  5. Personal Development: Change happens when individuals develop self-efficacy
  6. Access to services: Change happens through meeting people’s hierarchy of needs, including basic, psychological and emotional