Elements of a New Paradigm: Beyond Theories of Change

February 12, 2010

The ever-growing complexity of our social sector, together with the power of the Internet and the disengagement of government, has created a decentralized model of social change. As a result, the linear logic models and theories of change that are anchored in the old paradigm no longer match reality.
The logic models that many foundations rely upon describe a predictable path of cause and effect.  If a foundation or grantee does A, then B will follow as a consequence and, if all goes well, outcome C will ultimately emerge. Theories of change may have more moving parts, but most follow a similarly linear path.
Both logic models and theories of change are useful tools, but the ways that they are frequently used by funders are rooted squarely in the old paradigm: funding new interventions to demonstrate that they can solve social problems so that others will replicate them on a larger scale. Each intervention must be examined in isolation if we are to be sure that it is the cause of the ultimate impact we seek. In fact, the goal of randomized control trials, the “gold standard” of evaluation, is precisely to isolate the impact of a given intervention from any other factor that might have influenced the outcome.
Viewing grant-funded interventions in isolation, however, overlooks the external circumstances and the other organizations that inevitably affect the issue.  Logic models and theories of change generally leave out the interdependencies among different social problems, the ways that opposing organizations might respond to a grantee’s actions, the timing of critical events that might create moments of opportunity, the funding patterns of other donors, changing public sentiment, the role of government, and the myriad other factors that make social change the fickle and erratic process that it really is.
Anchored in the old paradigm, these models lead foundations down paths of static strategies based on assumptions that remain unchanged for years, rather than toward dynamic initiatives that use the inherent flexibility of funders to seize opportunities and continuously adapt to changing circumstances.
More important, these models obscure the opportunities for large-scale change that the Internet has brought about. Movements can arise and knowledge can circulate without any institutional sponsorship. We may not be able to predict what will happen through a logic model, but we can analyze in real time the responses from millions of people to see what is happening. Successful Internet companies constantly dissect data about the behavior of their customers, responding immediately to the changing patterns they see. Foundations could do the same.
We no longer need to assume that a positive social change must begin on a small scale in a pilot project under controlled conditions, then be tested and evaluated before being rolled out. Instead, we can test, modify, and scale Internet-based solutions all at once. Foundations can seize the momentum of changes already underway and magnify their impact. They can empower people to solve problems for themselves. Today, even small foundations can have a global reach.
These are exciting possibilities that would make foundations even more influential and important than they already are. We only need to shift our paradigm to see the new opportunities that lie ahead.

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Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation