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Developing a Theory of Change with Arts and Culture Professionals by Karen Breece

Greetings, AEA365 readers! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. Registration for this year’s conference is officially open, and our local hosts at the Indiana Evaluation Association (IEA) are working with the AEA team to ensure our time in lovely Indianapolis is a fulfilling one. This week’s posts feature the voices of IEA’s members. Happy reading!

Hope you’re having a good week! I am Karen Breece, an internal evaluator for Conner Prairie Museum in Fishers, Indiana. Have you ever wondered about developing a theory of change for your organization, or even a department within your organization? I did.

I was working with a department that was starting a lot of new programming. They had a need for a cohesive vision to express with they were wanting to do with the rest of the organization, with each other, and with funders. The beauty of a Theory of Change is that it succinctly connects programming with intended impact, and I felt this was the perfect opportunity to try creating one. 

To develop ours, I set up bi-weekly collaboration meetings with this department. I moderated each meeting and walked staff through thinking about the following:

Beliefs: What did this department believe in? This is a section that not every Theory of Change has, but I believe it may be the most important, especially to attract potential funders. People (and foundations) donate to organizations that share their values. Agreeing on common beliefs helps create a cohesive message to funders about who you are and what you want to accomplish. An example Belief from our Theory of Change was “The primary goal of a museum experience should be to create a welcoming and safe environment to learn and play.”

In Action (Activities): What did this department do for the organization? What do you do? This section may seem like the easiest to fill out, but we had to think on it. It will also look different for every organization. For us, one of the activities was: “We facilitate learning through mindfully observing, deeply listening, thoughtfully questioning, intentionally curating the environment, and utilizing grounded theory research.”

As a result we’ll see (Immediate Outcomes): This one took us the longest and it was where I had to provide the most guidance as an evaluator. It was easier for my collaborators to articulate the long-term change they wanted to make in the world than the observable, immediate outcomes of an hour spent at a museum. We ended up having to go through multiple rounds of brainstorming and editing to get to immediate outcomes that were measurable. Here’s one of the ones we ended up with: “Guests have learned, grown, been challenged or moved, and/or changed.”

Which will eventually lead to (Long-Term Outcomes): In a museum setting, it’s not common to measure long-term outcomes. But this department also oversees a preschool where measuring long-term outcomes is more appropriate. One of our long-term outcomes was: “Improved personal, intellectual, social, and physical wellbeing” for program participants.

Which can have this impact (Impact): This is where Theories of Change shine. Being able to connect what you do every day to the BIG CHANGE you want to see in the world can be transformative. My collaborators were excited to use this section to train staff so that they could feel more engaged in the work they do every day and how it makes a difference. One of our impacts was: “More fulfilled and self-actualized human beings that lead richer, fuller lives and feel more capable to reach their full potential, identify their purpose, and become more aware of their worthiness “

Lessons Learned: 

This process not only helped the department, but it helped me grow as an evaluator. It helped me guide programming staff through thinking about the big picture of what they were doing. It also helped us build a working relationship of trust and mutual understanding. We have created a foundation on which richer evaluation studies can be built. I am especially thankful to my collaborators, a crew of museum educators, that were my gracious thought partners throughout this process.

We’re looking forward to the Evaluation 2023 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to contribute to AEA365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to AEA365@eval.org. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

3 thoughts on “Developing a Theory of Change with Arts and Culture Professionals by Karen Breece”

  1. Thank you. One of the raging dilemmas while facilitating a Theory of change process is to decide whether to begin from the Goal and come down to activities or start from activities and go to the goal. You seem to have started from the activities. Do you have an opinion on which one is more effective?

    1. Hi, Rex! Author here. This is an intriguing question. We started with activities because in my experience museum educators (or people who are exceedingly close to doing the work of the mission in any organization) can name outputs/activities more easily than outcomes. This may be because it’s easier for someone to list WHAT needs to happen day to day for the doors to be open/people to be served than it is to get to the WHY. What I didn’t include here is that we actually listed Impacts immediately after we did activities – because the people I was working with it was easier to name what they ultimately wanted to do – improve well-being/healthcare/make better human beings – than the smaller measurable steps it takes to get there. That said, I think this process will look different for every organization that does it – as it should be! Feel free to try both orders and let me know how it goes 🙂

      1. Thank you. I find that process relatable and have also seen others do it. Fix the impact and then start with activities below and fill the gaps perhaps iteratively.

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