Towards a Theory of Change for Community-based Research Projects

Janzen, R., Ochocka, J. & Stobbe, A. (2015). Towards a Theory of Change for Community-based Research Projects. Engaged Scholar Journal, 2(2), 44-64.


The purpose of this article is to present a preliminary theory of change for community-based research projects. The theory of change emerged from a Canadian Summit titled, “Pursuing Excellence in Collaborative Community-Campus Research.” The article begins by providing a rationale for why a theory of change could be helpful to advance the agenda of community-based research (i.e., concept clarification, guide to action, and quality assessment). Next we describe how our preliminary theory of change was developed, before outlining the theory of change under the headings of activities, intended outcomes, and sample indicators. We conclude by discussing what is needed in order to deepen our understanding of the theory of change for community-based research projects.

This article describes a theory of change for community based research. This is relevant to broader knowledge mobilization since both KMb and CBR involve collaborations (i.e. co-produced research) between academic and non-academic partners, are responsive to real world challenges, and are focused on change making.

A theory of change describes the anticipated processes in a chain of intended outcomes. It describes the steps from inputs to activities to outcomes and impacts. In knowledge mobilization terms a theory of change is equivalent to an impact pathway. We have recently described a co-produced pathway to impact (CPPI) that is a theory of change for research impact. A theory of change predicts outcomes and is used prospectively. It is a required element for many impact oriented grant applications. If you can’t describe what you think will happen then how can you plan your activities and why should someone else fund it?

The four components of the theory of change are: 1) laying the foundation; 2) planning the research; 3) gathering information and analysing it; and, 4) acting on the findings. Typical of all theories of change, impact pathways and frameworks, these four components are not presented in a linear fashion but in a cycle with arrows looping forward and backward (but check the CPPI in the link above for a discussion of why linear is ok when working in systems).

The paper has a number of lists: three hallmarks of CBR, three main functions of CBR, four components in the theory of change. I am not certain how these lists link together or if they are presented independently. Nonetheless, what is very helpful is the table if indicators the authors present to help collect evidence for research process (relevance to communities, meaningful participation); research rigour (meaningful and useful data and interpretation); and research impact (mobilization of knowledge, mobilization of people).

But here’s the thing about any pathway to impact or theory of change: the best a pathway can provide is generic advice. A pathway (or framework) must be implemented in a specific fashion for each project. It’s not about research but what research (what data sets, what methods). It’s not about a partner but what partner (public, private or non-profit organization, local or multinational). It’s not just about impact but what impact (what indicators, collected from whom, collected when). As the authors state “The challenge is to develop a theory of change that is flexible enough to adapt to each unique research project, while also providing the implementation commonalities to aid with research planning and management across projects”. Research on the KTA Cycle showed that most people just cite the pathway as their framework. They don’t implement the pathway in a specific fashion.

Questions for brokers:

1. Is there a difference between a framework (like KTA Cycle, Canadian Academies of Health Sciences Impact Assessment Framework) and a theory of change (like this CBR example, the CPPI)?

2. What is your theory of change? How have you specifically implemented that pathway to fit your project?

3. What are your indicators of impact? When are you collecting them from whom? Check Table 1 for categories of indicators – and don’t forget to adapt them to your specific context.

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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