Embedding the sustainability predicament in a theory of change

DECI-3 Blog

Embedding the sustainability predicament in a theory of change

By Ricardo Ramírez and Dal Brodhead, DECI-3.

This blog provides a review of recent literature that proposes guiding questions to embed sustainability themes into a Theory of Change. It also highlights the view that “an essential part of any accountability regime is planning for sustainability…and that sustainability needs to be a critical aspect of the impact chains of all Theories of Change” (quoted from Sridharan, S. et al. 2019).

So much of our work faces the sustainability predicament: we seek to enhance change that is durable and yet our actions are bound by short-term projects. All stakeholders face this challenge: funding organizations are bound by budgeting commitments that rarely exceed five years. Grantees face the impossible challenge of proposing significant goals while cognizant that results will only become tangible some time beyond the duration of a project.

The instruments at hand to navigate this dilemma are few, especially as conventional planning tools have an underpinning in linear, predictable change that seem to ignore the complex nature of change. The current trend is to complement logical frameworks -that emphasize measureable objectives- with theory of change diagrams that acknowledge the complexity of actually achieving those objectives. In many cases, it is desirable to have several theory of change variations: some may be broad summaries of a project, while others may narrow down to unpack specific components (as mentioned by Davies, 2018; and by Mayne, 2017). A theory of change can be complemented by narrative, to explore the nuances of what can be or has been achieved (as mentioned by McEwan, 2019).

One project component that we focus on in this blog is capacity development, which is common to most projects we work with. According to the COM-B framework: we need to address capabilities, opportunities, motivation and behaviour – as they are the Lego blocks for sustaining capacity building during and beyond a project (as mentioned by Mayne, 2017; and by Michie et al., 2011).

Capability and opportunity lead to and enhance motivation, which lead to behaviour change; the four components are described as a system. Behaviour change is complex, often non-linear, and the outcomes can be difficult to predict. Sridharan and Nakaima (2019) gave us the metaphor of traveling through a ‘rugged landscape’. In addition, the suggest that “Our theories of change therefore need to be driven by knowledge of such heterogeneous impact journeys and what context of supports, capacities, opportunities, and motivational incentives clients might need after the program ends” (quoted from page 4).

Sridharan and Nakaima (2019) propose that to address the sustainability predicament, three items require recognition from the start of a project: an explicit definition of the impact journey, an explicit sustainability plan that focuses on the mechanisms that can help sustain that journey, and clarity about how the program will connect with the broader organizational system. They propose the following key questions to guide sustainability thinking. We reproduce the key questions from page 13 of the article, and we add our remarks.

Quote: “Is there an appreciation of the heterogeneous needs of clients? Are the planned activities able to address such needs?” Remark: The heterogeneity of clients will be reflected in the communication strategy, through the definition of specific audiences. The differentiated activities will be covered in the key evaluation questions associated with specific activities.

Quote: “Do the program and the organization have the capacities to address the heterogeneous needs of clients?”    Remark: Some necessary capacity will be needed during project design or early implementation. Other needs will become evident during implementation, which underscores the role of adaptive management.

Quote: “What resources are available from the program’s organization to help the clients with their impact journeys? Is the funding enough to bring about change? If not, what is the role of the evaluator in helping bring realist to what impacts can be expected?” Remark: The budget and work plan should address the first question. The second is challenging, as often the outcomes are only partially evident in the short term. On the third question, it confirms our evaluation mentor’s role in helping define a gradient of outcomes that are realistic, as in Outcome Mapping and Developmental Evaluation.

Quote: “What plans are in place to provide supports to the clients after the funding for the program ends? Will partnering organizations be able to provide such supports after the program’s funding ends?” Remark: This one can be difficult if the organization is very dependent on grant funding. The value of partnerships becomes increasingly important, though it may not be sufficient to confirm continuity.

In closing, Sridharan and Nakaima (2019) have the following suggestions to embed sustainability into the theory of change:

  • “Map the uncertainties in the theory of change
  • Map the connections between the intervention and the rest of the organizational system

  • Explore the heterogeneities of client-level needs.

  • Explore key barriers that individuals will face in the intended impact journey.
  • Explore if the program resources are consistent with the resources required to make the impact journey.

  • Explore the potential timelines of impact
  • Explore the dynamic supports needed both during and post-funding stages to assist with capabilities, motivation, and opportunities.
  • Explore role of boundary partners in enhancing organization capacities and provide dynamic supports over time” (this list appears on page 15 of the article).

In their view, a useful theory of change should be grounded in the complex reality of the impact journey expected by the clients. It needs to highlight the expected barriers and flag the differentiated strategies that can be tailor-made to each “client” (audience). Where possible, it needs to engage other “boundary partners” to complement organizational capacities; they emphasize that: “…it is important to be clear about the skill sets needed for lead staff and frontline staff who are charged with building capacities, enhancing motivations, and strengthening opportunities. Organizations need to be encouraged to sustain the capacities and recognize that the roles played by these actors are very complex and that proper incentives need to be given to keep such individuals around” (quote from page 17)

The above guiding questions appear ‘easier said than done’… We take note of the repeated use of the verb ‘explore’ and look forward to experimenting with our partners to make this happen.  We are guessing that this will mean testing multiple visualizations and discussing probable scenarios about how exactly change is expected to happen.  We are also very aware that this effort will not undo the sustainability predicament, but at the very least it may allow project teams to put all the cards on the table and allow them to agree on a realistic set of expectations.  If there is a policy take-away in this, it is the enormous contribution that longer-term funding makes possible.


Davies, R. (2018). Representing theories of change: Technical challenges with evaluation consequences. CEDIL Inception Paper 15.  London: The Centre of Excellence for Development Impact and Learning.

Mayne, J. (2017). Theory of Change Analysis: Building Robust Theories of Change. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. 32(2): 155-173

McEwan, K. (2019). The impact chain – How to craft an effective case study narrative. LSE Impact Blog https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2019/02/21/the-impact-chain-how-to-craft-an-effective-impact-case-study-narrative/

Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation Science, 6(42), 11 pages.

Sridharan, R. and Nakaima, A. (2019). Till Time (and Poor Planning) Do Us Part: Programs as Dynamic Systems—Incorporating Planning of Sustainability into Theories of Change. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. 33(1): 20 pages

Sridharan, S., Go, S., Zinzow, H., Gray, A., & Gutierrez Barrett, M. (2007). Analysis of strategic plans to assess planning for sustainability of comprehensive community initiatives. Evaluation and Program Planning, 30(1), 105–113.