How to Develop Your Theory of Change | by StartSomeGood

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The number one job of any founder is to express clearly the mission you are you. You need to be able to articulate clearly the where you are trying to go; the destination of journey that you are inviting others to come on with you.

The expression of this mission will be at the heart of your story, and compelling clarity is required to inspire others to want to be part of that story, whether that’s potential co-founders and team members, investors or donors, customers or volunteers.

At the heart of all great social change projects is the thoughtful answer to the question: what needs to be true to create the social outcomes I desire?

Your answer to this question is your Theory of Change.

A theory of change is a story about the future.

An effective theory of change reveals your understanding of what is, what can be, and what is needed to get us there.

One aspect of this challenge is to link the immediate work you want to undertake with the long-term goal you seek to achieve. One thing we have seen over ten years of helping people crowdfund their impact ideas at StartSomeGood is that the most successful campaigns can articulate both in a compelling, realistic and inspiring way.

The best stories link the current situation, which might be seeking funds to launch, running a pilot or testing a new product, with your ultimate goal, the achievement of long-term social impact.

If you are developing your theory of change around an issue you care about, we recommend using two very powerful questions to better understand the issue and figure out where you can best play a role, developed by Hildy Gottlieb at Creating the Future.

Question 1: What does this make possible?

Question 2: What is the necessary precondition (ie. What needs to be true) that makes this inevitable?

The first question helps you go up a layer of impact, while the second takes you down a layer. In this way, you can sketch out both your highest purpose or ultimate goal, and how this connects to the piece of the puzzle you are working on now.

So, for example, if you care about homelessness, the ultimate “solution” to homelessness isn’t just getting everyone into housing. Because homelessness is a manifestation of other issues, it can’t simply be solved with, well, homes. So to go up a level of impact, ask yourself, if everyone had a home, what would that make possible?

That might make possible a world where everyone is included, or where everyone is part of a community, or knows the feeling of home, and so on.

Use the “possibility” question to take your thinking to a higher level, from removing negatives to creating the positive future you want.

Then use the “what need to be true” question to map out how to get there.

So, what is the necessary precondition that would allow everyone to be included?

Housing is certainly one key part, but as you brainstorm the map of issues and needs around homelessness they will branch out, like an upside-down tree, because the world is complex.

One branch might be about taking care of kids and building more resilient families. Another might be about the cost of housing. A third might be about empowering the homeless to advocates for themselves, based on the belief that the necessary precondition is for us to better hear the voice of the homeless in this discussion.

Depending on your passions, skills and interests, you might then pursue early-intervention strategies with fragile families, or build tiny houses as low-cost housing, or create a media outlet with specialized training (it’s not just about tools remember) for the homeless to speak out and share their stories.

A fast-growing Australian non-profit called Orange Sky started when the founders identified a part of this map that no-one else was working on: the difficulties most homeless people have washing their clothes and, connected to this, to engage with mainstream society. They realized that the ability to have clean clothes was a necessary pre-condition to self-worth, social acceptance and employment opportunities, and created a mobile laundry service for the homeless.

A laundry service may seem like a very small intervention in the face of the challenge of homelessness but Orange Sky believe it’s a missing piece of a complex puzzle to solve this issue.

By mapping the issue, Orange Sky was able to clearly see this gap and what filling it would make possible — greater confidence, cleanliness and self-worth, as well as increased community connections and bonds between volunteers and the homeless they serve. As a result, they are able to clearly communicate their value to volunteers, donors and potential team members, and have rapidly expanded their service around Australia.

So, if you feel stuck trying to figure out how to make a dent on an issue, first go up, to the ultimate purpose you seek, then reverse-engineer the necessary pre-conditions to get there.

When you see a key part of that system no-one else is taking responsibility for, such as Orange Sky with laundry or StartSomeGood with early-stage capital for social entrepreneurs, you may have found your mission, underpinned by a compelling theory of change.

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We wrote this post for mission-driven founders, individuals, and organizations. In conjunction with our post, we’re offering you a special bundle to help you start up: a custom .ORG domain, professional email, and a logo, through BetterOn.org.

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