• September 2018
  • Vol. 19, No. 7

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Mapping Transformation: Developing a Theory of Change to Get to Better Outcomes

Written by the Children's Bureau's Capacity Building Center for States.

When establishing goals with families, child welfare workers ask them to envision the results they want to see and what steps they might need to reach them. Similarly, a theory of change helps an agency think through the steps needed to get from an identified problem ¬to a desired outcome. A strong theory of change—developed with stakeholders—helps chart a logical and feasible path to better outcomes.

The Center's new Change and Implementation in Practice brief describes the following five tasks for developing a theory of change:

  1. Gather information on the root cause(s) and target population: The starting point for developing a theory of change is identifying one or more root cause(s)—the underlying source of the problem to be addressed—and the target population that is affected most directly by the problem.
  2. Identify a long-term outcome: Identify the change in behavior or process that will result if the agency effectively addresses the root cause(s). The desired outcome should be clear, directly related to the problem, and realistic.
  3. Develop the pathway of change (causal links): A theory of change includes a series of causal links (or "building blocks")—changes that must unfold and build on each other to achieve the desired long-term outcome. The links make up the pathway of change from the root cause(s) of the problem to the outcome. Starting with the long-term outcome, identify the changes that need to occur, and work backward to the root cause(s). Use data related to the problem and its root cause(s) to identify and justify each causal link.
  4. Define Actions: After developing the causal links, identify the actions that must be taken to lead to the needed changes. Brainstorm ideas in terms of, "if we do x, we can achieve y."
  5. Document Assumptions and Rationale: Clarify the underlying assumptions related to the causal links to reveal expectations about the proposed theory of change. Tying assumptions to available research strengthens your theory of change.

Theory of Change Example

  • Problem: Noncustodial fathers are not receiving adequate services to meet their needs.
  • Root cause of the problem: Caseworkers don't recognize the positive effect of noncustodial fathers on outcomes, and often lack the necessary skills and experience to engage noncustodial fathers successfully.
  • Target population(s): Noncustodial fathers (and the caseworkers who serve them).

Pathway of Change

Causal Link 1: Caseworkers develop and apply the knowledge and skills necessary to engage and work with noncustodial fathers.

so that

Causal Link 2: Caseworkers engage noncustodial fathers in frequent and quality contacts.

so that

Causal Link 3: Caseworkers assess noncustodial fathers' strengths and needs comprehensively and accurately.

so that

Causal Link 4: Caseworkers refer noncustodial fathers to services that address their needs.

Desired long-term outcomes:

  1. More noncustodial fathers receive services that meet their needs.
  2. The resilience and well-being of noncustodial fathers is enhanced, which fosters healthier relationships and parenting and contributes to the safety, permanency, and well-being of their children.

Potential Actions:

  1. Provide training and coaching for caseworkers on effectively engaging with noncustodial fathers.
  2. Examine how the agency measures contact frequency and quality, including those with noncustodial fathers.
  3. Ensure agency leaders and policies communicate the importance of fathers and demonstrate a commitment to their inclusion and engagement.
  4. Ensure service accessibility.


  1. Caseworkers receive limited or no training and support on engaging noncustodial fathers.
  2. Effective services that match noncustodial fathers' needs are available in the community.

The Change and Implementation in Practice series offers further information to help agencies engage in a research-based process to effectively make changes to improve outcomes. The following resources can help with exploring problems and developing theories of change:

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