Newton Fund’s theory of change: making it useful
By Aoife Murray -
Last January, we started on a journey redesigning the Newton Fund’s theory of change. The theory of change tries to explain how the fund’s activities will produce results and the final intended impact. We wanted to make sure we got as much value out of it as possible for the upcoming Newton Fund evaluation (Spring 2021) and to broaden its purpose.
Theories of change are a common part of international development practice. They help with communication, management, accountability and learning. They come in all shapes and sizes but the real test is in how you use them.
We consulted widely with Newton Fund stakeholders to understand how we could improve the theory of change.
One big challenge was moving the consultation process to Zoom because…COVID-19. Nevertheless, we learned a lot about how people (funders, in-country teams and delivery partners) want to engage and how to maintain momentum and interest in the project.
With less time, we had to focus on what we wanted from each interaction. People appreciated us being responsive to their needs and keeping the process participatory throughout the year. Being truly open to change and refinement as the redesign evolves is important to ensure the theory of change remains relevant and useful.
What have we learned, and how has it made a difference?
Space for critical reflection
The Newton Fund is in the final year of its (2014-21) funding cycle. The process of redesigning the theory of change allowed us to revisit the fund’s purpose, objectives and evolution. It created space for us to reflect on our assumptions and the realities of how things have panned out. It’s brought people together across the fund and given us a better understanding of the challenges.
People decide how a theory of change is used
Theories of change are of limited value unless they’re used by funders and implementers.
Our first attempt chiefly served as an evaluation tool for us evaluators. We didn’t give enough thought to other audiences. For example, funding partners in developing countries who need to see how impact is expected to come about and at what stage.
This kind of feedback was an important part of our consultation process. Stakeholders found it hard to engage with the old theory or see the benefit of it beyond evaluation. Placing people and usefulness at the center of the redesign helped us to improve engagement with its content beyond the evaluation team. It means we can make it more useful to more people.
It’s difficult to strike a balance between detail and simplicity. We wanted the theory of change to be multi-functional and we wanted to provide a rationale for the impact the fund hopes to achieve. The volume of information that needs to be represented to reflect the scale of the fund is huge. We used the redesign to simplify the rationale for the outcomes and to make clear the assumptions involved between activities, outputs and outcomes. It’s important to recognise that the drivers behind social change are complex and non-linear, so theories of change are inherently limited in their representation of how change happens.
Process not product
The process of developing a theory of change is more important than coming up with a diagram itself because it helps us to understand complexity. As evaluators, we often dip in and out of contact with key stakeholders, particularly over a long funding cycle. It’s important to keep people interested in the evaluation process to ensure we maintain participation without overburdening them. We use our redesigned Newton Fund theory of change to frame our own research. And when we talk to people about the fund and our work, we refer to it. But we need to emphasize that it’s not a final product just yet. We will use it to demonstrate progress towards impact (results) and to explain what’s changed and why.
Showing what we expect the fund to achieve
The Newton Fund is a multi-faceted, multi-purpose global fund. It’s hard to communicate its enormous value and potential for international development, research, people’s careers, diplomacy, partnerships. The theory of change has helped us to challenge our thinking. To link the work of the fund to its outcomes. To help people see the route to impact and how long it may take. To explain what the benefits are for the UK and our partner countries and for global research and innovation. We can see and start to understand the scale of social change the fund ventured to bring about. That makes it useful for everyone.
Let us know what you think.
Diagram shows original theory of change
Aoife Murray @murrayaoife is a Senior Consultant for Tetra Tech International Development.
Tetra Tech International Development is the Newton Fund’s independent evaluator.
The redesigned thoery of change was published in 2020. It is part of the Newton Fund Operational Framework, which you can find in the resources section of this website under BEIS reports.