Background: Develop a theory of action for your program

Q: What is a theory of action?

A: Sometime referred to as a theory of change, a theory of action describes how and why your program will work and reveals the strategic thinking behind the change you seek to produce.

Q: What is a logic model?

A: Essentially, a logic model is a visual representation of your program and how it is intended to work. While there are a variety of templates to draw from, most logic models include resources (inputs), activities (outputs), and goals (outcomes). Explore the external links and resources on this website to see samples from a variety of organizations that can be adapted to fit your own needs and context.

Q: What’s the difference between a logic model and a theory of action?

A: While the terms “logic model” and “theory of action” are often used interchangeably, they play different yet complementary roles. A logic model visually depicts a program’s components so that planned activities align with desired outcomes. A theory of action focuses on how and why the program will produce the change, using “if-then” statements to generate a logical explanation and reveal strategies and assumptions about how resources and activities are used. A logic model is most effective when an explicit theory of action is embedded in the program components.

In The Logic Model Guidebook (SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009), Lisa Wyatt Knowlton and Cynthia C. Phillips differentiate a program logic model from a simplified theory of change logic model that depicts a more general overview of how you believe change happens. Throughout this website, the term “logic model” refers to a graphic representation of a program that is best applied in the context of a theory of action.

Q: What is the difference between a logic model and an action plan? Why do I need both?

A: Many program directors use action plans, creating timelines and tasks matched to program objectives that help to guide the project during implementation. A logic model may include some items on an action plan, but also illustrates the presumed effects of the activities.

Q: Why should I use a logic model?

A: Logic models can unite stakeholders with a common language and reference point for participating in a program. They convey the primary purpose of an initiative, why it is important, and what results are intended. Logic models are useful for determining whether planned actions are likely to lead to desired outcomes and can be used during program planning and implementation to coordinate efforts, test theories, and keep the focus on common objectives. Within the evaluation field, logic models play a role in targeting appropriate questions, indicators, and measures within an evaluation plan.

Q: When should logic models be developed and revised?

A: It is helpful to begin program planning with the development of a logic model, which can be applied to implementation and evaluation processes. An initial logic model will need to be revised periodically and needs to be introduced whenever stakeholders are brought into the program. Different participants will bring important perspectives and new information that impacts assumptions within a logic model, so allow for revisions at key check points: when beginning implementation at a new site or at major evaluation reporting milestones.

Q: What are assumptions, and how do they impact a theory of action?

A: Assumptions are pre-existing conditions we believe to be true in order for our program to function as planned. They can be beliefs about people (how they learn, what their motivations are, how they behave), procedures (how things operate), or the existing situation (resources available, the external environment). There are assumptions behind every theory of action, and by making them explicit you can better anticipate how they may impact the extent to which you can successfully meet your desired outcomes. Assumptions may come from experience or research and best practices, but in either case, need to be tested in your evaluation. Stakeholders also need to share an understanding of the program to avoid working under differing assumptions and at cross-purposes.

Innovation Network, a nonprofit organization that shares planning and evaluation resources, provides a step-by-step *Logic Model Builder* (2005) through its Point K Learning Center. You can access this guide, and other useful tools, after completing a free online registration.

This document (.pdf, 1.3 MB) from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, *Logic Model Development Guide* (2004), focuses on the creation and use of logic models in evaluation efforts. It provides fictitious examples, helpful tips, and an appendix of templates and checklists.

The Program Development and Evaluation department at the University of Wisconsin-Extension-Cooperative Extension developed a self-study module, Enhancing Program Performance With Logic Models (2008), along with a related training guide and presentation slides.

The first of a set of two guides, Building Evaluation Capacity: Guide 1, Designing a Cross-Project Evaluation (2008), includes a section on using logic models to support evaluation (pages 7-11). Published by the Urban Institute and developed from a National Science Foundation effort to improve cross-project evaluation of STEM programs, this resource illustrates how a logic model can help focus evaluation questions and support the selection of indicators and appropriate measures.