Logframes on Steroids

Within the last week I’ve come across several cases where the Logframe has been confused with Theory of Change. I’ve seen it in articles, heard it from friends, experienced it with colleagues, and (subsequently) have started to wonder myself. Duncan Green of Oxfam has cited a development professor who wonders whether Theory of Change has simply (or complexly) become “Logframes on steroids”. Is the Theory of Change doing more of the same thing that the Logframe does, or is it doing another kind of thing? Does it serve an altogether different purpose?

One of my professors once explained that the Logframe (LF) was always intended to be a top-down process, in the sense that an organization starts at the top with their overall goal, and eventually works their way downwards to identify activities that directly serve to support their goal. However, the institutionalization of the LF has (unfortunately) caused this process to become a bottom-up, retroactive justification of the activities that are already being carried out. In other words, organizations are forced by funders to ‘logframe-ize’ their projects, and so they begin with their present activities, unchallenged by whetherthese in fact flow from their overall goal. In so doing, the objective of the LF is missed, and assumptions of why ‘our’ activities are best are reasserted. The top-down approach on the other hand, beginning with the goal (leading to objectives, outputs, then activities), seems to start us off on the right foot; we forget about ourselves for a moment, and think more purely about what will in fact bring about change.

Enter, stage right: Theory of Change. Theory of Change (ToC), as it was explained by my professor, was to avoid the LF’s entanglement in time-restrictions and funder-directed outcomes, and to enable organizations to consider more honestly how change happens in general, with all it’s complexities; our activities are second-order priorities, and are only considered after (and in dependence upon) our analysis (and subsequent theory) of change.

While this sounds like an important corrective to the LF, this does not altogether make ToC a different thing categorically. It seems to be the same thing, but carried out in a different context. Indeed, according to this conception, Theory of Change would be ‘Logframes on steroids’.

This conclusion is confirmed when thinking about the future of ToC, thus defined. For when ToC undergoes an institutionalization, as is currently in progress, it seems that ToC will suffer the same fate, and go the way of the LF in being a bottom-up justification of our activities. Unless of course the ToC is not just an uncorrupted LF, but a different tool in the nonprofit’s workshop (or, a different tool in the funder’s arsenal). 

Below I’ve listed several elements that envision the ToC as a different species than the LF that I hope you will find helpful – please comment with any others if you see something missing, or want to challenge the ones I’ve put forward!

Disclaimer: The definitions and usages of the LF/ToC that I use below are certainly not ubiquitous, but flow from my engagement with them. My conclusions are not universally true, but take on one limited perspective.

ToCs Throw Off the Constraints of Time

The most basic categorical difference is that the LF generally adheres to the project cycle, while the ToC sits above several project cycles. While this is not always the case, it seems as though the ToC is used to bring together all the projects and roles that an organization is engaged in, and put individual projects in the context of the organization’s overall goal, and most likely the organization’s vision statement. This is in contrast to the LF whose goal is specific to the life-cycle of the project. And because the ToC is less time-bound, it is freed up to do different kinds of things…

ToCs’ Measurements and Indicators Are More Cross-Cutting and Meta

While I have seen ToC’s that do not have any indicators included, best practice does attempt to introduce indicators. However, these indicators are of a different kind than in the LF. This is because the ToC, which is a much more flexible organism than the LF, is able to consider more complex, cross-cutting questions that are not as easily discernable in a linear analysis. It can create indicators that engage assumptions made about power (where it comes from and how it is changing), conflict vs cooperation (which is needed to bring about change), optimism vs pessimism (which guides our organization more), bottom up vs top down processes (which we find more effective), and modernization vs tradition (which we value more). [This list was taken from a similar conversation that took place here].

Clearly, this list creates certain kinds of measurements, and thus indicators, that do not usually find themselves on the average LF. ToC is not for clean, easy measurements (although it does seem important to have some indicators that can help to see how the progress indeed happens), but to provisionally chart the progress on higher-level change.

Finally, in ToC we can also track the progress of other actors. As we seek to measure power dynamics, we can consider more honestly who did what, and what that means for who we should work with in the future, and what our role should be. As we’ll see in a later point, ToC increases our ability to strategically discern what kinds of programs we should choose to become engaged in.

Said another way, ToC can assume a more meta approach due to (often) less strict reporting structures and deliverables. As such, it not only considers whether or not an intervention worked, but can engage the higher-level questions of the types of interventions an organization employs, by bringing programs into conversation with one another.

ToCs are Less Vain

ToCs are slower to answer the practical question of what ‘we’ are going to be a part of, and attempt to reflect more honestly on how change happens. Indeed, ToCs can begin to measure realities that do not directly impact our organization, but are important both for our organization’s self-understanding and understanding of the context in which we operate.

ToCs Can Afford to Operate in a Complex World

The classic charge against the LF is that is assumes an overly-simplistic world. While I get this charge, I am sympathetic to the LF because it seems that in order to get certain kinds of things done, and do any level of planning, we need to pretend for a moment that the world is slightly less complex, and more predictable, than we truly believe and experience. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to assume a causal relationship in our LF that we can all understand and get behind, as long as we state our assumptions, then monitor them.

Leaving the LF in a ‘simple world’, the ToC is freed up to plunge into the complexity, and multiple complexities, that mark our true reality, and to hypothesize provisional causations and relationships in hopes of perceiving order out of chaos. This way of thinking seems to do the world more justice than the LF. It is, in some senses, a more natural way of thinking – but certainly less safe and more unruly.

Based on this conception, we find that simplicity and complexity are helpful counterbalances to one another. We recognize the limitations and necessities of each. And the two should always run on separate tracks, while always remaining in vital conversation. Based on this understanding, a LF and a ToC workshop will look worlds apart, because in some senses, they exist in different worlds. And as stated, we need both of these worlds if we are going to continue to thrive as an organization.

ToCs as Lenses

For clarity’s sake, only one LF is submitted to the funder. And sometimes it is better to leave off changes (as good as they may be) in order to avoid the rigmarole of producing a new LF and getting it checked off by your funder. Was that too honest?

While it is not common practice to create multiple ToCs, there is talk of the benefits of doing so. As a Theory of Change, it is important to test the one theory by another(s). As we examine the data with various Theories of Change, we learn our biases and assumptions in the way we collect data, and ways that we are apt to look at the data. Not only do we look back at past data with different theories, which act as lenses, but we switch between our lenses as we experience new data in order to more intentionally experience. We train our minds to interpret new data along our stated theories of change. Remember what I said about meta?

One author wrote that when we reflect back on a story of change, we tend to apply ‘retrospective coherence’ to it. Said another way, we often recall events with a gloss of simplicity, rearrange the power dynamics (in a way that suits ‘us’?), while remembering certain people and forgetting others. This is another reason why a well-considered ToC is so essential: To support anorganization with a more accurate reflection on the data. To be sure, the theory that reflects more accurately on the past, interprets more correctly in the present.

Additionally, multiple ToCs create an opportunity to surface the de facto theories of change that may exist subconsciously in our minds though always ripple out into our actions. This is in part why the ToC is so essential to an organization. Entertaining the idea of multiple ToCs helps an organization hold their theories in tension, rather than letting one dominate the others (even if one is provisionally chosen as the dominant). Remember what I said about process?

ToC, the Critic

While chronologically, an organization produces their LFs before their ToC (mostly because the former are more institutionalized), there seems to be a logical priority to the ToC. For it is from an organization’s ToC that their programs (and adjoining LFs) should flow.

For this reason, it is important that the ToC sit over-top LFs as their critic. If programs say the same thing as the ToC, then either the organization is doing an outstanding job, or (more likely) the organization is not being honest enough in dreaming/analyzing/hypothesizing that makes up a ToC process. A strong organization is one that recognizes the disparity between its ToC and programs, and is taking steps to bring these into alignment.

ToCs Take the Scenic Route

While I am not entirely comfortable writing that ToCs are all about process, and the LF is about results (since both need to be both), it is nonetheless true that ToCs provide an opportunity to engage the question of how change happens without a deadline, without the restrictions of donor requirements, and as a way to keep an organization healthy. To be sure, this rationale for a ToC lends itself to a focus on process rather than results.

One development scholar/practitioner has suggested that we should throw away our complex, marked-up, arrow-filled ToCs after they’ve been created, “lest they terrify”. This is because any late-comer to the conversation will be utterly overwhelmed and/or confused when presented with the diagram. The idea here is that the process of drafting the ToC is in some senses more important and helpful than the diagram itself. 

And if it’s about process, another recommendation that follows is that a ToC should be deliberated over time, with different kinds of global and local thinking exercises, thus milking the process for all it’s worth. All levels of staff need to be engaged in these questions, as it creates buy-in, and brings about a ‘thinking organization’. It’s good for the mind, and encourages innovative thinking. Both components of the Action-Reflection cycle are stronger together than on their own – and I’ve probably understated my case.

Final considerations:

This approach to ToC indeed causes it to be a different kind of beast than the LF. And while the increasing institutionalization of the ToC, as well as the different needs and resources that exist across organizations, make it difficult to practice ToC with the above explanations (that I realize now are more like recommendations), I believe that each of the points brought forward work to create a corrective and partner to the LF that is indispensable if an organization is to remain healthy and innovative. 


The three following blog posts from Oxfam staff, brought into conversation with my experience and thoughts, served as my inspiration for this post.

What is a theory of change and how do we use it? (August 2013)
Theories of change = logframes on steroids? A discussion with DFID (May 2012)
Power and change – how do they fit in development work? (November 2011)