How to Make a Theory of Change Work for Advocacy?

Jonathan Ellis is an advocacy and campaigning consultant. He recently did an assignment in Bulgaria for OSF supporting Roma community groups to develop their advocacy, which led to a new pamphlet on how to make a theory of change work for advocacy.

He shares it for our blog:

“My enthusiasm always increases during one of my advocacy workshops when I get to the section on theory of change.

I will say to people – ‘we are now going to do the one thing that I wish someone had told me on my first day of doing an advocacy job.’ I then apologise in advance if I come across as being too enthusiastic!

I will then go onto say that even from my first campaign, I had a theory of change in my head. I would not have called it a theory of change, but I did have a clear future direction or future story that I could see my campaign developing.

For me the explosive piece of learning was the simple advice of writing it down, using the words ‘so that’ to link up the activities, but then to be open to challenge on my thinking, and always reviewing my thinking after each external engagement.

I would later come across the great quote from the German military strategist, Helmuth von Moltke: “no battle plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy.” You need to build your theory of change based on a robust understanding of your external environment, but you must review it after each activity in the outside world.

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to travel the world to share my simple approach to advocacy and to using a theory of change.

Then last year, I was out in Bulgaria running advocacy training for a group of Roma community leaders across the country on behalf of the Open Society Foundations. I ran an introductory workshop, and then four months later, I returned to work with them in more detail once they had all decided on their advocacy priorities.

On the evening of my second workshop, one of the community leaders came up to me after dinner. She said that she had really liked my description of a theory of change, but just could not see how it would work in practice.

I just love a challenge like that; I sat there and the reality hit me, that despite all I had written in my book on advocacy campaigning, Campaigning for Change: an Essential Guide to Campaigning around the World, I had little in it to help her with her question.

As a result of her challenge to me, I have written a new pamphlet, Making your campaign happen: how to use a theory of change or future story for your campaigning. This new piece, freely available on my website, seeks to set out a very practical approach to developing a theory of change. It includes a worked-through example of a group using a dynamic theory of change process to promote their case for change.

I relish working around the world as a consultant building capacity and confidence with diverse groups to campaign for change. And I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my insights into advocacy campaigning. But above all, I love what I learn from each group and their challenges to me, all of which make me more effective in supporting people to campaign for the change that they want to see in the world.

Jonathan Ellis