An Introduction to Program Theory

Social Solutions Blog

An Introduction to Program Theory

All human services programs or projects exist to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve, or society as a whole.  But how will your program make a difference? 

If your program, for example, exists to help unemployed or underemployed individuals find gainful employment, how do you decide which activities will be most meaningful toward this end?  You can’t provide every activity, so which activities, either individually or combined with other activities, are most effective for reaching your outcome?   All of these questions lead you to your underlying Program Theory.

What is a Program Theory?

In simple terms, a Program Theory is the assumption that your program’s design, activities, and execution will lead to the achievement of the outcomes you intend for your clients.  A clear and concise Program Theory lays out a logical description of why the activities you provide will lead to the results or benefits you intend.  Your Program Theory is the backbone of the success of your program.

How do you define your own Program Theory?

You can often capture your Program Theory with a series of if-then statements; meaning that if something is done for program clients, then something should happen or change for these clients.  Using our example above of the employment program, you can create a series of if-then statements leading to an outline of your Program Theory, such as:

If a certain amount of inputs (resources such as staff, funding, etc) are available, then our program can provide job readiness skills classes for clients.

If our clients attend these job readiness skills classes, then they will learn the skills necessary to search for jobs.

And, etc.

However, don’t forget to ensure that there is a well-established connection between, or at least credible evidence for, the underlying assumptions that the specific services and activities will actually lead to the results you want your clients to obtain from your program.

Another way you can articulate your Program Theory is to create a Logic Model.  Logic Models are a visual picture of your Program Theory. Logic Models can also be useful to your program in a variety of other ways. 

Next time, we will look at, and discuss, the important functions of Logic Models. How is your program capturing its Program Theory? Have any additional words of advice for your fellow nonprofit peers? Please share them in the comments section below! 

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