Our Theory of Change - ONE/Northwest

ONE/Northwest is an innovative hybrid organization that does deep thinking about where this field is going and their role in helping make change happen.  In this blog E.D. Gideon Rosenblatt unpacks the Theory of Change tool that assists ONE/Northwest to evaluate and understand their work, their mission, and the outcomes they seek.  These folks are social innovators committed to social change and building a sustainable society.  Read more to learn how they make it happen.

Gideon Rosenblatt is the E.D. at ONE/Northwest, a past Web of Changer, and the boss of WOC 2009 co-convener Dave Averill.  Read this blog for the inside scoop on how they continue to use the Theory of Change framework to inspires and guide their work.

ONE/Northwest uses a “Theory of Change” to maintain our mission focus. Social change is crucial to the work many of us do, and a Theory of Change is a conceptual map used to describe how change happens. At ONE/Northwest, we use our Theory of Change both for strategic planning and for evaluation.

Back in 2006, thanks to funding from Social Venture Partners, we contracted with Jane Reisman at Organizational Research Services to help us improve the way we evaluate the impact of our programs. At the time, we were just coming off of some important strategic planning work and, after our first meeting with Jane, quickly realized that a Theory of Change could be a valuable supplement to that planning.

It wasn’t easy. It takes a lot of work to develop a Theory of Change that truly captures the essence of your organizational strategy. We found the content of our Theory of Change to be so interconnected to our strategic planning, we did most of the actual thinking behind the model ourselves. That said, we did find it extremely helpful to have a consultant like Jane facilitate our discussions, shine light on unstated assumptions and help us work through the tough questions that need to be asked when you’re digging into something as important as the “why” behind what you do.

It’s three years later, and our Theory of Change still guides our work. The time we spent developing this model was a worthwhile organizational investment. We use it to guide our program development, to prioritize which organizations we work with, and to help us assess the impact of our work.

We’ve also found our Theory of Change to be a valuable tool for explaining our work, the outcomes we seek and the reason we do the work in the first place. That is why we are now sharing this model publically for the first time in this article.

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Here’s a link to our full ONE/Northwest Theory of Change. There’s a lot of thinking behind each of the little boxes on that map, so we decided to unpack the map here in bite-sized pieces to better explain our thinking.

Societal Outcomes

At the top of this map, you will find the heart of our mission: building a sustainable society. Everything we do at ONE/Northwest leads to this top level: developing technology tools and strategy, our work with clients, their work with decision-makers.

Our Theory of Change has helped us refine our mission to the following statement, approved by our Board of Directors in May 2009:

“ONE/Northwest delivers technology to engage people, organizations and communities in building a sustainable society.”

Decision Maker Outcomes

The next level down in our Theory of Change focuses on shifting the outcomes of key decisions that impact the environment. 

Consumer behavior ultimately accounts for the bulk of our impact on the planet. While we don’t rule out strategies that attempt to directly change individual consumer behavior, we are more interested in strategies that impact this consumption by influencing the decisions of government officials and business leaders.

Business leaders run the companies that create the products and services that drive consumer spending. Strategies that cause businesses to produce sustainable products and services will greatly impact our goal of building a sustainable society.

Because government officials set policies that directly impact both consumer behavior and business behavior, public policy is another powerful lever that we look for in our work. Most environmental advocacy organizations prioritize influencing public policy over influencing business behavior. We believe both strategies are critical and include both in our Theory of Change.

Client Outcomes

The next level down on our map represents the outcomes we hope our clients will achieve through our work with them. Improved Client Outcomes can greatly influence the Decision Makers.

This is a critical link in the chain because ONE/Northwest relies on other organizations to achieve its mission. We can do amazing work to strengthen an organization's ability to engage people, but in the end, our societal impact depends on how effectively they use our tools and strategies to accomplish their missions.

We want to help our clients become more effective in the way they influence and collaborate with public officials and business leaders.

This focus on influence and collaboration was something we identified in our earlier strategic planning work, but wrestling with our Theory of Change gave us a much deeper understanding of how our clients achieve these goals. It helped us to identify a set of strategies that are not only important to these ends, but that would benefit from our expertise and resources. As a result, we identified three sets of client strategies where we knew we could make a difference:

1.    Helping organizations that directly influence public officials and business leaders: the goal here is improved ability to lobby.

2.    Helping organizations that organize citizens and community leaders to influence public officials and business leaders.

3.    Helping organizations coordinate their organizing and advocacy with other organizations. Much of this coordination happens through formal coalitions, but we are just as interested in the kinds of loose coordination that happens in more informal networks.

ONE/Northwest Outcomes

The next level down represents the outcomes we seek through our work.

It is at this level where we believe we have more operational control over the outcomes of our work.

“Engagement” is the unifying theme for our desired organizational outcomes, which include:

•    Greater engagement innovation. Over the years we have been very successful at diffusing important new technology into the environmental movement. We are now expanding this innovation to include not only new tools but also new strategies.

•    Greater awareness and commitment to engagement. To deal with the enormity of climate change and other environmental challenges, the environmental movement needs to mobilize people on a scale like never before and we work to raise awareness of this need.

•    Greater funding for engagement. Outcomes here center on increased funding for ONE/Northwest’s work and increased funding for engagement capacity within environmental organizations more broadly.

•    Greater client engagement capacity – this is the ultimate goal of our work: improving the ways organizations build connections with people and engage them in building a more sustainable society. This is where we have invested the majority of our program evaluation resources.

Our Work

At the bottom of the map is the actual work that ONE/Northwest does. This falls into three main program areas and two support functions. This work serves as the base for all levels above it.

•    At the center is our consultancy, which is focused on providing technology and strategy consulting to strengthen our client organizations’ ability to engage people. Consulting is, by far, our biggest program area and accounts for the vast majority of our work.

•    We’ve invested a lot in innovation since our inception in 1995 and in the last few years have formalized these investments into a kind of mission-driven R&D lab focused on advancing new tools and strategies for civic engagement. Some of this work involves organizing within existing software development communities to stimulate interest and investment in our clients’ needs.

•    Our role as advocates is to raise awareness of the need for stepped-up investments in relationship building and engagement within the environmental movement. We do this through publishing via our website and various social media channels. We also convene clients and speak at various events.

•    Finally, our fund development and administration provide critical support to our three program areas.

So that’s it—ONE/Northwest’s Theory of Change. It’s been surprising to us how much we come back to this framework. We wanted to share it with you and hope that you find some inspiration and clarity in how you are thinking about you own mission-driven work.