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Global Interdependence Initiative
CONTINUOUS PROGRESS Better Advocacy Through Evaluation
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"Expecting that every grant or cluster of grants that we make is going to result in policy change is highly unrealistic; however, change is what boards often expect when they decide to invest in advocacy."
-- Priscilla Lewis, U.S in the World (formerly with Rockefeller Brothers Fund)
"Another challenge is that groups want to create massive changes in policy; when they are not able to achieve those goals, it leads to frustration for them and for the funders. I believe advocacy goals are hard to achieve in many cases because the goals are set too big and they are impossible to achieve in an advocacy grant cycle. It's better to set incremental goals for policy change, achieve them, and then celebrate your success."
-- Ritu Sharma, Women's Edge Coalition

Your Theory of Change: The Path from Funding to Results

As we've discussed, a sound theory of change is essential to planning good advocacy grantmaking. It plays an equally important role in evaluating the effectiveness of your foreign policy advocacy efforts. A theory of change is just that: a theory about how change will occur. In this case, we are presumably seeking a change in policy, attitude, or public will. You may have heard other terms like logic model, blueprint or theory of action; like a theory of change, all of these are tools for mapping how you will reach your ultimate policy goal. As a grantmaker, the theory includes the funding decisions you expect to make, the actions your grantees will take with your support, and even non-funding efforts your organization may undertake. That means you and your grantees should agree on that ultimate goal, their portion of the theory of change, and the overall division of responsibility between each of you. That's why we put such a premium on good consultation between grantmakers and advocates at every stage of the process.

Theories of change are based on assumptions -- your best guess about what actions you and your grantees will be able to take and your best assumption about the probable outcomes of those actions. Envision each of these steps and - as important - the ways you can measure progress between each step. These interim results can provide valuable benchmarks that help you understand if you are on the right track. They can also provide opportunities for mid-course corrections for you and your grantees.

Because of the nature of grantmaking and the types of goals foundations are seeking, a grantmaker's theory of change may have a much longer time-span than that of an advocacy organization. In this example, the advocacy goal was passage of AGOA III. Funding partners were surely involved. The advocacy theory of change spanned the year-long discussion and debate over the value of this particular piece of legislation. But foundations with decades of commitment to creating new economic opportunities in Africa were reaching a major milestone in what for some was a multi-year theory of change.

A theory of change must be broad enough to allow for the many unexpected factors that might arise. But it should not include so many assumptions and vague connections that it loses meaning. Consider this: "Targeting younger Americans with information and e-advocacy tools will put pressure on Congress to increase foreign aid." While this theory of change may turn out to be true, it contains many embedded assumptions about the:

  • audience's level of interest in the issue of foreign assistance;
  • meaning of "younger Americans;"
  • resonance of e-advocacy;
  • willingness of the audience to take actions; and
  • response of Congress to e-advocacy.

Again, all of these assumptions may prove correct. But spelling them out allows us to more carefully evaluate where any possible breakdowns occur. And that permits us to look for possible improvements that can make this advocacy investment pay off, as well as the next investment.

Grantmaker TOC

Let's look at a sample grantmaker theory of change: Rendering it graphically allows us to walk through the actions, assumed results and ensuing steps based on those outcomes. (Check out the sample grantee theory of change here.) Working together with grantees, a grantmaker can identify where modifications may need to occur, say between year 2 and year 3, where a mid-term election could potentially impact the roster of congressional champions identified in the first phase of the theory of change. By tracing through the entire theory, and consulting with grantees about the theories of change they are pursuing with help from your resources, we can be better prepared for mid-course corrections.

Benchmarks are the way-stations along the path to any goal targeted by your theory of change. Within the long-term theory of change a grantmaker adopts to help guide years of giving are dozens of key mileposts along the way to the major goal. At times, these benchmarks are readily apparent -- quantifiable targets such as sponsors on a piece of legislation or media hits for a designated organization spokesperson. But other benchmarks are the product of collaboration -- and a bit of outside-the-box thinking -- by organizations and their funding partners. To ensure that you are on track, you and your grantees should agree on some indicators, simple measurements that signal whether advocacy activities are on target to reach predetermined benchmarks. Indicators illustrate real-time results allowing advocates to see whether a course correction is called for.

These benchmarks and indicators can track progress toward a policy-change goal or a capacity-building goal. Learn more about working with grantees to establish agreed-upon benchmarks -- and valuable lessons for creating benchmarks and indicators for your larger grantmaking strategy -- here.