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An Introduction to the Theory of Change Using SMARTRISK as an Example


I Introduction
II What is a Theory of Change and where did it come from?
III Developing a Theory of Change: Using SMARTRISK as an example
IV Conclusion
V References

--submitted by Kathy Blair

I Introduction

SMARTRISK, a national, charitable organization dedicated to preventing injury and saving lives, applied for a grant several years ago from a foundation that funds charities with a social entrepreneurial slant. As staff went through the application process, we discovered we would have to produce a Theory of Change for SMARTRISK, a concept we were then unfamiliar with. The foundation’s website defined it as a “strategy or blueprint for achieving large-scale, long-term goals. It identifies the preconditions, pathways and interventions necessary for an initiative's success.” (1)

Staff spent some time looking into it and worked to produce one that fit our organization. In fact, we liked the theory and the process so much that we really committed to it, presenting the results to our Board of Directors and regularly revisiting it in our planning. In the end, the granting foundation chose not to fund our proposal. And from what we can tell, they’ve since stopped requiring applicants to produce a Theory of Change in their applications. No matter – we at SMARTRISK continue to use it and refer to it in our planning and programming. You too may find the Theory of Change useful as a way of thinking about your organization’s long-term goals and how to systematically go about getting there in a logical, step-by-step fashion.

Below, we outline what a Theory of Change is and illustrate how SMARTRISK went through the exercise. You may find it easier to conceptualize if you refer to the diagrams and figures included in a presentation on the Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre website, (2) which will give you a visual understanding of how the theory is laid out. SMARTRISK’s President and CEO, Dr. Phil Groff, delivered this presentation on SMARTRISK’s Theory of Change for Youth at the 2010 World Conference on Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion in London.  The completed Theory of Change figure is below.

Completed Theory of Change Figure

II What is a Theory of Change and where did it come from?

Although various theories of change have existed for some years, the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change refined and created this model and maintains a website on the theory. (3) It was developed especially for use by organizations dealing with or working towards social change and is recognized as a best practice in the art of theory construction.

A Theory of Change is a visual map that outlines all the steps that need to take place for an organization to reach its long-term goal. The model is outcomes-based and causal and organizations must articulate the underlying assumptions they make in their work. The model essentially works by defining the end goal then working backwards to figure out all the steps that need to take place to reach that end goal. According to the group ActKnowledge, (4) “a Theory of Change identifies measurable indicators of success and keeps the process of implementation and evaluation transparent, so everyone knows what is happening and why.

“ActKnowledge uses Theory of Change as a foundation for strategic planning, credible and relevant evaluation, instilling ownership of the initiative among all stakeholders, and building organizational capacity. Stakeholders value theories of change as part of program planning and evaluation because they create a commonly understood vision of the long-term goals, how they will be reached, and what will be used to measure progress along the way.”

III Developing a Theory of Change: Using SMARTRISK as an example

Long-term goal

The organization begins by clearly defining its long-term goal.
In SMARTRISK’s Theory of Change for Youth, our ultimate goal is that fewer young Canadians are seriously injured or die by injury each year.


At any point in the theory, as it’s being developed, an organization needs to make explicit any assumptions it makes, what it holds to be facts or processes operating in the world.
In terms of SMARTRISK’s long-term goals, two underlying assumptions of the organization are that:

  • Injuries are predictable and preventable.
  • Youth are less likely to hurt themselves or others if they take smart risks.

Plotting the pathways

Next, the necessary steps or intermediate outcomes to reach those goals are outlined and plotted in pathways on a map. At each step along the way, the organization determines what it needs to do – if anything – to reach the next step. Interventions are needed when pre-conditions do not necessarily lead to those that follow. In some cases, outside partners need to play a role in creating the change.

In SMARTRISK’s case, given our assumptions and long-term goal of fewer injured youth, it follows that youth will need to take smart risks. We assume that this can happen in one of two ways; therefore, either of the following preconditions could lead to the long-term goal.

  • Youth can learn to recognize risk and choose to take smart risks.
  • Youth can take smart risks without being explicitly aware they are doing so, simply by following appropriate examples or by following rules and regulations.

That youth choose to take smart risks consciously is the cognitive approach most closely aligned with SMARTRISK’s mission statement, our historical expertise with effective program design and also the most likely to bring about long-term behavioural change. Thus, this is the stream we developed most within our Theory of Change for Youth.

Choosing smart risks

For youth to make smart choices consciously, it is necessary that they feel motivated to do so. The leading theorists from behavioural science agree this motivation is a result of two processes:

  • The first is threat appraisal, which involves being aware of the risk of injury and also holding the belief that one is personally vulnerable to injury.
  • The second is coping appraisal, involving the awareness that there are ways to manage the risk of injury and that one is personally capable of doing so.

Based on prior research, SMARTRISK assumes that it is necessary to engage both threat appraisal and coping appraisal, because it has been demonstrated that heightening the awareness of risk, without giving individuals tools to manage it, only drives them to deny that they are personally vulnerable. For example, using scare tactics such as gruesome crash scenes to frighten teens away from driving after drinking or doing drugs may not work unless they are offered what they feel to be manageable ways to avoid this negative outcome.

We also assume that during coping appraisal teens will judge whether they are capable of taking steps to manage risk based on more than just whether or not they are simply able to take those steps. One also has to weigh such issues as the impact on peer relationships of taking those steps. For example, while a teen may understand the wisdom of wearing a helmet while skateboarding, he may decide not to do so, fearing his non-helmeted friends will make fun of him.

Making smart choices by following examples

For youth to be positively influenced by role models, there have to be such role models available as peers, friends, parents or mass media. We assume these positive role models will need to be informed of smart risk taking, but that different levels of awareness will be appropriate for different types of role models. (As youth see both high profile and recreational snowboarders regularly wearing helmets on the slopes, for example, they’re more likely to wear helmets themselves. These high-profile snowboarders don’t necessarily have to be consciously setting an example, or even choosing to wear helmets out of a conscious choice to manage risk on their part, to still serve their purpose as good examples.)

Making smart choices by following rules

For young people to follow rules and regulations that support smart choices, these rules and regulations must exist, and young people must be aware of their existence and relevance. For example, young people are subject to well-publicized graduated driver licensing laws that restrict what they may do behind the wheel.

Environments and products support managing risk of injury to youth

All choices happen in context. We have added a third stream focused on the environment in which young Canadians make their smart risk choices. In some cases, without smart design of an environment, no amount of behavioural change will be sufficient to prevent injuries. For example, local recreational departments may build attractive, well-designed skate parks for youth, which, while not eliminating the risk of injury, at least provide a traffic-free option for skateboarders.

What SMARTRISK and others need to do

To stimulate change through each of these approaches, SMARTRISK and/or others must make interventions. These interventions include strategies and messages that make smart risk taking relevant to each target audience. Two assumptions have been made here:

  • That risk taking is an inevitable and important part of life.
  • The best way to make strategies and messages relevant to youth is to employ social marketing principles, particularly by better understanding our target audiences among Canadian youth. Social marketing puts the focus on understanding the audience in order to make the message relevant.

SMARTRISK works through its two main programs for youth to make these interventions: SMARTRISK No Regrets, a peer-education program which lives in high schools year round, and SMARTRISK No Regrets Lives, a high impact road-show that introduces youth to smart risk messages. (5) These programs help youth recognize that injury is a major issue for teens with potentially devastating consequences. At the same time, SMARTRISK programming offers young people clear, viable ways to take smart risks so they can go on enjoying life while not getting hurt.

The Theory of Change has also helped us to refocus our program evaluation efforts, to ensure we are answering the appropriate questions all along the line. For example, we know a necessary outcome is that youth are aware of the risk of injury. In No Regrets evaluations, youth are asked on the pre- and post-tests whether they know what the leading cause of death for their age group is.

As a single organization with limited resources, SMARTRISK is unable to make all the necessary interventions ourselves to lower injury rates for young people. Thus, we need to work with partners to ensure change occurs. These partners may include other injury prevention organizations, community groups, governments and manufacturers. The Theory of Change has helped us to clarify our thinking around all these issues.

IV Conclusion

The above is a brief introduction to the Theory of Change and how SMARTRISK adapted it for its needs. We encourage other organizations that work to make social change to investigate the theory further to determine whether they may find it a useful exercise to work through as well.

V References