The Application of the Theory of Change in the construction of Research Proposals: A whistle-stop tour

Theory of change is increasingly referred to in research funding call guidelines; in many cases there is a specific requirement to explicitly incorporate theory of change into research proposals. While this can feel like a new and daunting task, it is something that every well thought through application with a comprehensive pathways to impact plan will be doing anyway, even if theory of change is never explicitly mentioned. Theory of change can become a complex beast – many multiple page documents, articles and papers have been produced which provide very comprehensive definitions, guidelines, recommendations and examples. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of what the theory of change is all about and how it applies to research proposals.

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 should 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 for 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 are the activities that the project team, stakeholders and other relevant individuals/ groups/ organisations will carry out that 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.


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.


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.


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.

Theory of Change

Click the image to enlarge

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