January 15, 2016

Intended Impact /Theory of Change

Clarifying precisely what a nonprofit will hold itself accountable for achieving, and how it will accomplish it.

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Intended impact and theory of change together form a system for clarifying the goals and strategy that will achieve a nonprofit's mission.

An intended impact is a statement or series of statements about what specifically the organization is trying to achieve and will hold itself accountable to. It succinctly identifies what results the organization will accomplish, for whom, and in what time frame. While these frequently serve as complements to mission statements that tend to be fairly aspirational in character, they may actually be the same as mission statements where expected outcomes are set forth with sufficient clarity.

A theory of change is an expression of the sequence of cause-and-effect actions or occurrences by which organizational and financial resources are assumed to be converted into the desired social results. It provides a conceptual road map for how an organization expects to achieve its intended impact and is often displayed in a diagram. A framework built around concepts of activities, inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impacts is called a logic model.

How it's used

Nonprofit organizations' mission and vision statements are often too broad or aspirational to enable clear decision making regarding resource allocation and trade-offs. Intended impact and theory of change fill this gap by defining clear, specific goals and showing how the organization's efforts will create this social change. This allows a nonprofit to make strategic decisions about how to use its time, talent and dollars to generate the maximum social returns. Strategizing using intended impact and theory of change constructs can help a nonprofit to:

  • Make tradeoffs among different programs, activities or investments
  • Plan, design, implement, and evaluate current and needed programs
  • Understand how its activities fit within a wider environmental context and mesh with others' activities, and identify any missing links that are essential to creating its desired impact
  • Communicate internally and externally about its strategy, priorities, and results compared to desired outcomes


Developing an organization's intended impact and theory of change is usually a highly participatory and iterative process involving many stakeholders, including senior leaders, board members, and key staff.

  • Articulating the intended impact requires specifying the change or social benefit the organization is committed to achieving, for whom, and in what timeframe. For example, "We will serve X population in Y geography to accomplish Z outcomes by 20XX." This requires thoughtful consideration regarding what level of progress is actually feasible and trade-offs among different potential goals (e.g., depth vs. breadth).
  • Developing a theory of change requires articulating specific and realistic answers to a series of questions:
    • What are the underlying needs and key characteristics of the population we want to serve?
    • What are the specific activities we believe we should offer to that population? For how long? How often?
    • By what sequence of causes and effects do we believe these actions will result in the impacts we aspire to achieve?
    • What staff, skills, systems, and tools do we need?
    • What external context is required to facilitate the desired effects?
  • Typically, a theory of change is displayed in a visual diagram with arrows showing connections.

Related topics

Additional resources

Zeroing in on Impact
This article explains how a well-articulated intended impact and coherent theory of change are critical to a strategy that will get results.

Delivering on the Promise of Nonprofits
To make the greatest possible impact, nonprofits need to explicitly state the outcomes they're aiming for and how they plan to accomplish those goals.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation Logic Model Development Guide
This guide helps nonprofits develop and use logic models to enhance their program strategy, planning, implementation, and dissemination activities.

The Advocacy Progress Planner
This online tool developed by the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program at the Aspen Institute helps advocacy programs plan their strategy and assess their progress.

Examples and case studies

Harlem Children's Zone: Learning to Grow with Purpose
Under Geoffrey Canada's leadership, the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families transformed itself into a more focused, outcomes-driven organization and was renamed Harlem Children's Zone, an organization dedicated to ensuring the children it serves succeed. The changes set the organization on a growth path and attracted long-term funding.

MY TURN: Preparing for Regional Growth
MY TURN was a relatively small youth-serving organization with a solid set of programs and strong track record of results when, encouraged by the effects of its programs, its board and management decided it was time accelerate growth and expand geographically. To do this confidently, MY TURN needed a clear strategy to develop a purposeful plan for growth.

Aspire Public Schools: From 10 Schools to 6 Million Kids
To select the best path to achieving statewide change, Aspire needed to clarify its overarching theory of change—the cause-and-effect logic that explains how Aspire would convert its organizational and financial resources into the desired social results.

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