Are you really solving the problem?

During my time in philanthropy, I reviewed many grant proposals, many of which were pretty good. They did a good job describing the project, and usually did a good job describing the problem they hoped to solve. However, nearly every proposal had the same flaw, something missing, something that inevitably led to tough questions from the Program Officer who was in charge of developing the grant. What was the missing piece? A failure to connect the project to the problem. In other words, how will this project actually solve the problem?

Let’s take an example. Say the problem you’re trying to solve is hunger among the homeless in the Bay Area, and let’s say you’re requesting a grant to provide free meals for 100,000 homeless people over the course of a year. We can understand the problem and its importance, and we can understand the project and its importance, but at the end of the grant, will you really be any closer to solving the problem? Will there really be less hungry people in a year? Is it possible there could even be more hungry people?

I’m not suggesting that feeding the hungry is a bad idea. It’s a good idea. In fact, it’s necessary in order to help these people survive another day. However, it’s also just a short-term solution to the symptoms of a much bigger, long-term, systemic problem. If your mission is to solve hunger, feeding the homeless is a necessary but ultimately insufficient step to take.

This is why organizations benefit from developing a Theory of Change. Yeah, we know. “Theory of Change.” It’s one of those fluffy, jargony buzz words tossed around by foundations and consulting wonks. But when developed effectively, it helps an organization to clarify what it does, and more importantly, why doing what it does helps to solve the problem.

The truth is, a solid, articulate theory of change helps organizations to be more strategic by identifying the key opportunities for influencing the system. Oftentimes a theory of change is equated to a strategy (“we do this therefore we get this”), but a good theory of change is a system-wide view that provides the context and rationale for a strategic plan. Done well, a theory of change makes a strong case for why your strategy is a smart, practical, and effective approach to achieving your mission and solving the problem.

Does your organization have a clear theory of change? Do you feel confident in explaining why your approach and programs are effective mechanisms for solving the problem? Have you had to face the tough questions from funders to explain the rationale of your programs? Post your comments below.


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