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The difference between “Magic” (I mean, Logic) Models and Theories of Change by Sara Vaca

Dear AEA365 readers, hi!

I’m Sara Vaca, independent consultant and frequent Saturday contributor to this blog.

I feel so lucky as I’m in the middle of a new assignment as facilitator to develop Theories of Change (ToCs): my first long ToC assignment was in 2017 for UNICEF Indonesia. And now I am working with the World Food Program, for five countries in the Asia region.

My assignment includes working with the teams in each country office to develop their ToCs with different purposes: to design their new Strategic Plan, to check if their baselines or evaluations are covering the right scope or to reinforce their implementation and discussions with donors.

Lessons Learned: Although the colleagues I work with –multicultural teams of highly-educated experts in their areas, have all heard about ToCs, the first thing I need to do is to align our ideas about what a ToC is. This way we agree on what we mean by concepts such as results, outcomes, outputs, cause-effect, actions, strategies, impact, and so on. However, the first burning question they have is: But what is the difference between a ToC and our Results Based Monitoring Framework?

Lessons Learned: Explaining the differences between ToCs and traditional logic models, I came to realize that Logic Frames, Logic Models, RBM frameworks, whatever we want to call them, are more like “magic” models – they tell you what they are planning to do and what they are trying to achieve, without much further information. So one could think that they pretend to work a bit like magic!

Lessons Learned: Sometimes I am of the opinion that it is better not to get too hooked on tags and names, and that it is not such a big deal to figure out what exactly the difference is between these two important tools for program management.

However, other times I wonder (or understand if people wonder): is this one or the other?

Hot Tip: In my experience, to tell difference, answer this question: Is this description of the program explaining to me the “How” or just the “What”?

If this is still not helping, perhaps it is easier with an example: if it tells you that a program is trying to reduce undesired pregnancies by counselling adolescents, I would say it is a logic model. On the other hand, if the explanation or the diagram also tells you that the counselling is expecting to improve their sexual and reproductive health knowledge, change their attitudes and empower them, mostly girls, to be more assertive in their sexual relationships, so that introduces changes in their practices and dynamics, so sexual relationships are better informed, so pregnancies are reduced… I would say it is a theory of change.

An explanation, either in text or displayed in a diagram, of how change is expected to happen through program activities, is a ToC.

Rad Resource: This paper I co-wrote with Lovely Dhillon, published in 2018 by JMDE, Refining Theories of Change could be helpful to know more about the subject.

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 submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

6 thoughts on “The difference between “Magic” (I mean, Logic) Models and Theories of Change by Sara Vaca”

  1. Hi Sara,

    I’m enrolled in a program evaluation course as part of the Professional Master of Education program at Queen’s University. I appreciate your succinct and uncomplicated explanation of the difference between logic models and theories of change. One of the assignments of the course was developing an on-going program evaluation design. I must admit the more I read about logic models and program theories, the more confused I became trying to differentiate between the two!

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts in the “Lessons Learned” section of your article. I agree that at the start of an evaluation program it is important to align everyone’s ideas of what a theory of change is, so that all involved enter into the evaluation process with an agreed upon understanding of concepts such as results, outcomes, inputs and so on. I also like the way you describe logic models as “magic models”, in the way they are structured to outline what they are planning to do and the outcome they will achieve without a lot of information.

    I found your “Hot Tip”, using how/what questions to distinguish between theory of change and a logic model, extremely helpful in understanding the distinction between these tools. The two examples provided also aided in furthering my understanding. Finally, at the end of your article, you mentioned that a theory of change can be presented through text or a diagram. I’m curious to know your opinion. Which method do you prefer? Does it depend on the type of change that is expected to happen through specific program activities?


    1. Hi Louise,
      I must still be on the thread for this blog, because I saw your recent note and question about preferences for presenting a theory of change in text or diagram form.

      Having done a lot of theory of change work over the years with folks in a range of organizations, my sense is that the decision about how best to present theory of change insights will depend on: (1) the complexity of the change model that you are trying to explain and (2) the comfort level of your audience with these different methods (diagram, text only, or diagram plus additional text).

      The ultimate aim is to present the information in a way that makes it readily ACCESSIBLE to your key audiences. Sometimes a picture does that well, but when the change model is really complex, it’s often hard to do justice to it with a diagram and a few words. In those cases, additional text can be critical in explaining the model’s core insights and how it is expected to work. A good rule of thumb is to run it by the people who need to understand the model and to get their read and guidance on which approach is most accessible to them and will best serve their needs.

      Hope this is helpful. — Josh

  2. Hi Sara,

    I just wanted to commend you on this post and thank you for the clear and concise explanation regarding the differences between logic models and theories of change. The what/how distinction is so simple yet makes a world of a difference. I am currently completing my Professional Masters of Education and am focusing on program inquiry and evaluation at the moment. We have been developing Program Evaluation Designs and recently looked at logic models and program theories. I must admit that I had a difficult time distinguishing between the two and identifying what it meant to include inputs, outputs, strategies and outcomes. Every resource I looked to had a different approach or explanation of what it meant to create a program theory or logic model and it can make sifting through information rather overwhelming. Your post clarified these terms for me and will be extremely useful moving forward in my research! You stated that a ToC can be explained using text or a diagram. Do you have a preference or opinion of which method is ‘better,’ for lack of a better word?

    Much thanks, Kelly

  3. Hi Sara – Just a quick note to say great blog and terrific description of the differences between logic models and theories of change. The what/how distinction is probably the most useful & accessible explanation I seen of how the two tools differ. I will definitely look to use it 🙂 Many thanks — Josh

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