Reflections on ‘Theory of Change’ with RNW Media


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Lisette Gast is working with RNW Media to develop their Theory of Change (ToC). In development cooperation, there are many interpretations of what a ToC entails. Below, Lisette shares her reflections:   

“The world is changing and so is RNW Media[1]. These changes have resulted in many internal shifts over the past years for both RNW and RNTC the two departments making up RNW Media. So it is a good time to have one shared vision on how RNW Media believes change happens and to capture this in a so-called ‘Theory of Change’. Perspectivity is asked to facilitate this process.

A Theory of Change is a ‘compass for helping us find our way through the fog of complex systems, discovering a path as we go along’ (Green, 2015)

Different approaches to develop a Theory of Change

RNW’s question is not surprising. It has become standard etiquette within the international development sector to ask, ‘What is your theory of change for that?’. There exist, however, roughly as many approaches, forms and structures to a ToC, as there are organizations and consultants developing them.

For some leading ToC advocates, the process involves developing a ‘roadmap to get you from here to there’ (Center for Theory of Change, 2015). In my opinion, this way of thinking creates the false assumptions of linearity between cause and effect and an oversimplification of the reality mostly to satisfy our own need for control.

RNW Media has committed to a short journey to approach the ToC in a Perspectivity way.

Discovering a path as we go along

At Perspectivity, we believe that it is far more useful to use the metaphor of the idea of a ‘compass for helping us find our way through the fog of complex systems, discovering a path as we go along’ (Green, 2015). This is important since ToC approaches must acknowledge that ‘social contexts and processes are always in flux, with emergent issues, unforeseen risks and surprises arising throughout’ (McGee and Gaventa, 2010). This suggests a need for a considerable degree of modesty about what we know about development processes. Acknowledging complexity does not mean ditching planning processes altogether, but rather recognising that plans often reflect best guesses about the future -and about the past too- and will likely shift over time (Hummelbrunner and Jones, 2013).

So back to RNW. On December 15, 2015, the working group –  a selection of diverse RNW Media staff – participated in a workshop. We created a space to explore the pockets of successes of the past and preconditions to foster being successful, external trends to which RNW Media needs to respond and the aspirations of the future. Only after having explored that, RNW can enter into the exploring the assumptions they make regarding their approach to enable change. The process will continue in January 2016.

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[1] RNW Media is a Dutch foundation set up as Radio Nederland Wereldomroep.