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Why Your Program Needs A "Big Bang" Theory Of Change
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Melina Condren, Training Resource Specialist

Many people believe that 13.8 billion years ago all the matter in the universe was in a single point, and that it has slowly expanded into the cosmos we know today. It’s amazing to think that the planet we experience today started from something seemingly small and insignificant. Much like our universe, ideas and plans may start small but eventually expand, grow and collide to meet our intended goals.

At the beginning, planning your Volunteer programs can seem chaotic; with requests and needs coming from all directions the decision making process can seem overwhelming. Which programs need volunteers? Should you bring in as many volunteers as possible because more hands mean light work? Would recruiting the highest skilled volunteers mean a higher impact and more specialized contributions? Are there any special projects that volunteers should take on?

Well, a theory of change can help you answer these questions and transform your decision making process from a high-stress guessing game into a clear-cut choice.

A theory of change is a way to map out your long-term goals, and all of the actions and conditions necessary to reach them. It’s a logical sequence of cause and effect that can be used in planning or evaluation. It’s a great way to decide what your program should be doing now to reach your goals in the future, and to figure out what you should measure so that you can check whether or not you’re succeeding every step of the way.

Although theories of change are becoming more and more popular in the non-profit sector, so far they haven’t had much attention from volunteer managers. But a theory of change can be incredibly useful for volunteer programs. In volunteer management, there’s sometimes a tendency to try to cater to the needs of all potential volunteers, instead of establishing and working towards specific program goals. By using a theory of change, you can identify your goals first, and then work backwards to figure out the steps and interventions needed to reach those goals. By doing that, you’ll be able to see the areas where volunteers would be most useful in helping your organization fulfill its mission, instead of trying to fit in volunteers anywhere and everywhere in the hope that they’ll manage to have a positive impact.


To create a theory of change for your volunteer program, it can be helpful to follow the six steps described by the Center for Theory of Change:

1) Identify the long-term goals of your program or your organization.

2) Work backwards from your goals to identify the necessary requirements to meet your goals.

3) Identify your assumptions about the context you’re working within.

4) Identify the interventions that your program will perform.

5) Decide what you’ll measure to assess performance along the way.

6) Write a narrative to explain the reasoning behind your initiative.

To learn more about these steps and to access tools and examples to help you out, visit


Choosing long-term goals and identifying a logical strategy to meet those goals is one of the most important things you can do to make sure your program is being productive and efficient. Using a theory of change will give yourself the time and tools to develop your programs, enabling your volunteers to reach your mission and maybe expand their “universe” in the process.

On September 22nd, there was a 'Volunteer' Talk on Theories of Change held at Volunteer Toronto. 

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