Winning the Internet

The theory behind the theory of change

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.






The difference between effective campaigns and ineffective ones has little to do with budget, tools employed or staff size. It has everything to do with your ability to develop a solid theory of change.

If you’re in the nonprofit world, you may have heard that phrase thrown around. But you may not realize that the concept applies any time you need to persuade someone to do something. (Seriously, try it at home the next time you want your roommate, spouse or child to do you a favor.)

A theory of change works backwards from the end goal. When you’re starting a new campaign, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the hows and whats (ie the tools and tactics) without first thinking about why you’re asking someone to take action. A good theory of change is based on the premise “If I do x, then y will happen.”

Taking time to think about your theory of change and long-term strategy—something we talk a lot about with the organizations we mentor—is important because it requires you to articulate up front the underlying assumptions of your campaign that you’ll be testing and measuring later.

Every campaign, email or action must have a plausible theory of change. Let me repeat that. EVERY campaign, email or action must have a plausible theory of change. If you’re going to ask someone to call their member of Congress, they need to understand why you’re asking them to pick up the phone.

In addition to plausibility, researchers Jim Connell and Adema Klem outline three other guidelines for creating strong theories of change. A strong theory of change must be:

  • Doable (human, political and economic resources are seen as sufficient to implement the action strategies in the theory);
  • Testable (stakeholders believe there are credible ways to discover whether the results are as predicted);
  • Meaningful (stakeholders see the outcomes as important and the magnitude of change in these outcomes being pursued as worth the effort).

Back in August, we talked to CREDO’s Elijah Zarlin about successful organizing. In his interview, he talks a lot about theory of change and the logic model of organizing.

At CREDO, we launch a lot of different campaigns, but for each one, it needs to be abundantly clear why clicking or calling or writing to the campaign target, at this moment, is the most important way we can make an impact on an issue.

Sometimes, you don’t have to explain it: It’s pretty clear why the Department of Interior shouldn’t allow a huge garbage dump next to Joshua Tree National Park. Other times a bit of context is required. But if it’s not evident almost immediately (“Why am I getting an email about Barn Owls right now?”) or the action doesn’t make sense for the issue (“How will posting a Youtube video effect what Congress does?”) then people don’t engage. If you repeatedly fail to establish a strong theory of change, you lose your credibility with your activists. A strong, clearly communicated theory of change shows people you value their time and activism, and they’re more likely to engage, both on today’s campaign, and the next ones.

One more example: Last year, organizations all over the country came together to fight the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. At the center of their efforts was the realization that the decision to approve the project rested solely with President Obama. So every email, petition and action that went out was built around the premise that pressure from activists directed to the President would make it difficult to approve the Pipeline.

Take a look at a few of the emails that went out from Change.org, CREDO Action and MoveOn.org. Can you easily identify the theory of change in each?


About Mary Rickles

Communications Director for Netroots Nation/Netroots Foundation