Intended Impact & Theory of Change

Nonprofits are needed now more than ever

Imagine being a child in the streets of San Francisco and having no place to call home, it is just heartbreaking.  Sadly, this is a reality, and according to Larkin Street Youth Services, a nonprofit organization, it happens at an alarming rate.  Stating, “tonight more than 1,300 young people will find themselves on the streets of San Francisco through no fault of their own.”

Established in 1984, Larkin Street Youth Services have made the statement that tomorrow must be different – our collective future depends on it. They are aiding more than 75,000 young people a safe place to rebuild their lives.   Larkin provides housing, education, employment training, health, and wellness awareness, helping these young people get off the streets for good.

Non Profits are needed now more than ever

We all love to hear these wonderful humanitarian success stories that genuinely change the lives of so many in a community.   However, success like that of Larkin does not happen by chance.  Today, nonprofits are faced with limited resources against seemingly unlimited needs, stifling financial issues.   Nonprofit leaders have the daunting task of running their organizations on ‘peanuts’ of a budget, squeezing the most out of each dollar to have the maximum benefit.   Juggling, getting critical resource decisions right – allocating time, talent, and dollars to the activities that have the most significant impact.  This is what “strategy” is all about. Relatively few nonprofits – even the most successful – have strategies in this pragmatic sense of the word.

So how do you bridge nonprofit’s missions and its programmatic activities, so we have increased success stories?  Two concepts that nonprofits need to implement, Intended Impact and Theory of Change!

Intended Impact

Intended impact is a statement or series of statements about what the organization is trying to achieve and will hold itself accountable for within some manageable period of time. It identifies both the benefits the organization seeks to provide and the beneficiaries.   Larkin leadership decided that their intended impact was to help San Francisco Bay Area homeless youth between the ages of 12 and 24 exit life on the street permanently. By specifying which youth the agency will focus on and the outcome that will constitute success, this intended impact clarifies Larkin’s strategic priorities in a way the mission statement does not.

Theory of Change

Theory of change explains how the organization’s intended impact will actually happen, the cause-and-effect logic by which organizational and financial resources will be converted into the desired social results.  An example of this is from a familiar story about a small village on the edge of a river.  Village life was good; children enjoyed playing in the river’s water, mothers washed their clothes and fathers fished.   One day, alarming, a man’s body was found floating done the river.  Everyone in the village ran to aid to pull the man to safety.  Barely alive, the village nursed him back to health.   However, day in and day out, more and more, almost dead, bodies kept coming down the river.   

One day a man in the village put on his walking shoes and started to head up the river, leaving the village.   Another fellow Villager shouted out, “you can’t leave now; we need everyone to help take care of all of the people we pulled from the river.”  The Villager shouted back, “It’s about time someone goes upstream to find out why these people are falling in the river in the first place.”

Out of this story are three possible Theories of Change:

  • We pull people out of the river and nurse them back to health.
  • We go upstream and prevent the problem in the first place.
  • Alternatively, we combine the two.  Help people in need and also work towards preventing the problem in the first place.

By nonprofit organizations implementing and building strategies versus expecting that a mission statement will get the desired result is foolish.  Let the power of ‘intended impact’ and ‘theory of change’ help move your organization forward and provide better leadership skills.  



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