Towards a Theory of Change

I was introduced to the notion of a theory of change from the late Internet activist Aaron Schwartz:

I am increasingly convinced that the difference between effective and ineffective people is their skill at developing a theory of change. Theory of change is a funny phrase — I first heard it in the nonprofit community, but it’s also widespread in politics and really applies to just about everything. Unfortunately, very few people seem to be very good at it.

Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine you want to decrease the size of the defense budget. The typical way you might approach this is to look around at the things you know how to do and do them on the issue of decreasing the defense budget. So, if you have a blog, you might write a blog post about why the defense budget should be decreased and tell your friends about it on Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a professional writer, you might write a book on the subject. If you’re an academic, you might publish some papers. Let’s call this strategy a “theory of action”: you work forwards from what you know how to do to try to find things you can do that will accomplish your goal.

A theory of change is the opposite of a theory of action — it works backwards from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it. To develop a theory of change, you need to start at the end and repeatedly ask yourself, “Concretely, how does one achieve that?” […]

[…] It’s not easy. It could take a while before you get to a concrete action that you can take. But do you see how this is entirely crucial if you want to be effective?

Pro-Life Theory of Action

Our pro-life efforts too often have a theory of action. We look around us and think, what can we do to accomplish our goals? What can we do that could abolish abortion? Let’s recriminalize abortion, just change the law back. Write your MP, write a blog post, go on social media, march, hold a sign, hand out some pamphlets, hold a conference, host a speaker, put some posters or ads up. These are all actions we can do as we look around us. Some of these actions might reach people and change their minds, or even save lives. None of these scattered actions will fundamentally change anything.

Well, that’s because we’re outnumbered, you might say. Or that’s because it won’t happen overnight, it’ll take a long time, but we just have to keep at it!

No amount of spitting into the ocean will cause a sea-change. A theory of action isn’t good enough. We need a theory of change.

Pro-Life Theory of Change

What does a pro-life theory of change look like? What would it look like to work backwards from the goal until we find some concrete steps we can take, rather than just taking whatever concrete steps seem available now without any real plan for getting to the destination?

Take the CCBR’s EndtheKilling plan for example. The vision is an abortion-free Canada. Concretely, how do you achieve that? They work backwards from that until they get to more concrete steps: a strategy of exposing the humanity of pre-born children and inhumanity of abortion through visual evidence, and through effective dialogue, in order to make abortion unthinkable — to make people more horrified by the reality of abortion than by the alternatives. People don’t want to address abortion, so they focus on ways to end the cover up, route around gatekeepers, and bring that message directly to an apathetic public — and then they measure whether or not it actually changes people’s minds on abortion with empirical data to see whether the tactics and strategy are actually working. You can read through the document — notice how they’re working backwards from vision, to mission, to strategy, to tactics, to actions — in concrete steps. How do we change minds? With evidence and conversation. How do we reach people who don’t want to see or hear? Bring the message to them. What about gatekeepers who won’t let that message through? Route around them. There’s no shot-in-the-dark, try-whatever-we-can-think-of-right-now or whatever someone else is doing — it’s a carefully considered theory of change.

UTSFL’s Theory of Change

I’ve seen UTSFL transform in recent years from a club that was maintaining a pro-life presence on campus (important) and reaching out to students (also important) to a club that’s committed to radically changing how the population at the University of Toronto St. George campus thinks about abortion — a club that’s serious about a theory of change.

For example, our activism team is not interested in simply being a presence on campus anymore, or in occasionally taking a stand. That’s a theory of action.

We are committed to making sure that everyone at the University of Toronto St. George campus sees photos of healthy pre-born children and photos of abortion victims on a regular basis and that everyone at the University of Toronto St. George campus will be spoken with about abortion.

We are committed to making the injustice of abortion impossible to ignore through visual evidence, to dispelling anti-science ignorance about when life begins and making the moral case for human rights for all human beings through conversation.

We’re forming ourselves to be pro-life ambassadors, learning and planning together every week, to reach every corner of the campus with frequent and visible activism that changes hearts and minds.

As William Wilberforce said when implementing theory of change to expose injustice and make it impossible to ignore: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Changing the way our campus thinks about abortion is a foundation for other efforts. We also lend our hands every week to women and families in crisis pregnancies and highlight the important resources available for parenting students at U of T — but first people need to be more horrified by abortion than its alternatives to seek assistance in a difficult pregnancy. We participate in political projects — but first we need to change opinion on abortion before laws recognizing pre-born human rights can be passed.

We’re building a movement on campus. We’re transforming the way the St. George campus thinks about abortion, to make it so that no one on campus can ignore the plight of pre-born children. This is not about doing whatever we can with a theory of action. We’re doing what we must with a theory of change.

We have a mission not just to be witnesses on campus, but to radically change our campus. Be a part of the movement — join us to change our campus!

Blaise Alleyne is the Education Coordinator of UTSFL. He has been a member of the club since 2005, serving previously as Technology Officer. Blaise has completed a B. Sc. in Computer Science, English and Philosophy, and is currently a part-time graduate student at Regis College.

Blaise’s posts on this website are available under a libre Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

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