The Application of the Theory of Change in the Construction of Research Proposals: A Whistle-Stop Tour
Impact is an inherent part of research funding calls. The types of impact that are sought by different funders and different calls varies. There may for example be a requirement that the research improves health and wellbeing, has economic value, informs future research, or has a transformative effect on a research topic. In some instances, there is a requirement for multiple types of impact within the same proposal. Furthermore, the way in which you are requested to address impact within your funding proposal will differ from application to application. In some instances, a template will be provided which includes a specific impact related heading or sub-heading; in others you will be given freer rein of the structure of your text.
Regardless of the structure in which your proposal is to be submitted, you will need to ensure that you have a clearly articulated, well thought through impact strategy which not only explains what impact your research is designed to generate, but also how this impact will be achieved. One of the most common stumbling points within proposal development is this very feature – this is not because the research has limited capacity for impact; it is simply that the primary or sole focus during the planning phase was ‘what will we do?’, rather than ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘what would be the best way to do our research to generate the changes that we seek?’
Theory of change is an invaluable tool for use throughout the entire research lifecycle, from the initial planning stages, through proposal writing, operationalisation, evaluation, and reporting. Its use will help to ensure that you are able to present your research such that its impact is clear and a reviewer can easily ascertain that the impact is both achievable and that it aligns with the objectives or specifications of the call to which you have applied.
Numerous resources are available online which provide a vast amount of background, detail and explanation of theory of change and its uses. The purpose of this article is not to compete with these resources; it is to provide a succinct summary of what theory of change is and how it can be applied to research proposal development.
What is Theory of Change?
Put simply, theory of change is the process by which the sequence of changes that must occur for an impact to be achieved is mapped. In the context of a research proposal, this pathway of change comprises a number of stages and components which collectively capture every aspect of a research project, including the problem that the research is designed to tackle, the participants, stakeholders and beneficiaries that will contribute, the activities that will be carried out, the outputs, outcomes and finally, the impact that will be achieved. By mapping out these components you demonstrate that you have thought through every step of your project and have a comprehensive plan in place for achieving the impact that you say that you can achieve.
Developing a Theory of Change
Theory of change can be captured in both a diagram and as a narrative summary that describes the sequence. Obviously, every theory of change diagram is different and there are no hard and fast rules with regards to exactly what a diagram should look like. However, it is important that every stage of the research pathway is mapped. A theory of change should not be produced in isolation – you will need to engage with all partners, stakeholders and beneficiaries to ensure that the pathway to impact that you articulate is robust, comprehensive and realistic. As a guide, think about the following components:
WHAT IS THE CONTEXT OF THE RESEARCH?
What is the problem that your research is designed to tackle or go some way to address? This forms the baseline upon which your research project will be built and provides the justification for everything that you do. You need to establish what and who this problem affects.
WHO ARE THE ACTORS AND STAKEHOLDERS RELEVANT TO THE RESEARCH?
Your research project is only one component in a landscape of activities, people and conditions that interact with and impact upon the stated problem. You need to consider this landscape and identify who needs to provide their input into the design and/or implementation of the research. Who will benefit and how will you ensure that the benefits that you enable are the most suitable?
WHAT ACTIVITIES WILL INITIATE THE CHANGE PROCESS?
This is often the easiest part as it involves mapping out what you will do; what are the activities that the project team will carry out or take part in? This component of the theory of change will correspond to your research work plan.
WHAT ARE THE OUTPUTS AND OUTCOMES?
To construct these components of your theory of change, identify what you will produce – what are the deliverables (i.e. outputs) of your research? Next, establish what these outputs will be used for. A simple example to provide some context for this is that an output may be a set of best practice guidelines for the treatment of the common cold. These guidelines can’t produce impact alone, but if they are shared with the relevant policy makers, the outcome would be a new policy document for use by General Practitioners when they encounter a patient with the common cold.
WHAT IS THE IMPACT AND HOW WILL IT BE MEASURED?
Think about what the impacts of your research project will be over the short- medium- and long-term. Ideally the impacts that your research sets out to achieve should be measurable and you should be able to specify the means by which impact can be measured. To continue the previous example: a long-term impact of the new common cold policy document might be that the health service reduces expenditure on common cold treatments by one third.
ASSUMPTIONS AND CHALLENGES
When constructing your theory of change, you also need to consider what the challenges are to achieving the proposed impact; for example, these may be technical challenges, procedural challenges, or challenges associated with the engagement of the relevant stakeholders. Every research project is built on a set of assumptions – as researchers we view problems through our own personal lenses and believe that certain activities will naturally lead to particular outcomes. It is important to make these assumptions explicit in your theory of change. The difficulty is that often they are unconscious, and this is why dialogue with stakeholders and beneficiaries is important to developing a broader and more representative perspective of the research process and its implications.
An Example Theory of Change Diagram
Figure 1 provides an example of a theory of change diagram for a fictitious research project. Obviously, the example that it uses is a silly one, but it demonstrates the components that are discussed in this article and that you need to think about when planning your own theory of change diagram.