Planning to succeed: refreshing a Theory of Change

Claire Dunne, Evaluation and Research Manager, describes how LEAP is learning from its impact and planning for the partnership to leave a successful legacy.

Claire Dunne

In November 2021, we launched a new website to visualise LEAP’s refreshed Theory of Change. We also published a more detailed dive into the programme.

It has been the result of almost two years of partnership working – involving parents, practitioners and local systems leaders. A lot of this work happened remotely, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is how we got to this point.

To help us prepare for the second half of our 10-year programme, we commissioned New Philanthropy Capital (NCP) and the Right to Know. Working with them, and with our community partners, we have developed a Shared Measurement System (SMS) and established our programme, domain and service level Theories of Change (ToC). We call this a ‘nested’ ToC approach, as the ToC at each level feed into each other.

Our Theory of Change articulates:

  1. The changes we want to see for children and families, and to systems in Lambeth (outcomes);
  2. The projects and services that we are investing in – because we believe their activities will lead to these changes; and
  3. How we expect this change to happen (the mechanisms for change).
An illustration of the three levels of LEAP’s Theories of Change and how they link to each other

How we used evidence to develop a theory of change for each of our services

NPC’s evidence review focuses on reducing inequalities in the early years. We have used it to inform planning of LEAP’s final five years.

Using this evidence, we worked with services to explore their existing theories of change, map the outcomes that they planned to achieve and understand their hypotheses for how their activities would lead to these outcomes.

Insights from parents, practitioners, local system leaders and stakeholders, helped us to prioritise and condense a list of over 200 outcomes to roughly 65.

An outline of the process we took to develop LEAP’s Shared Measurement System

If you are interested in learning more about this work, you can contact LEAP’s Evaluation and Research Team at:

I also recommend Jill Robert’s (LEAP’s Head of Evaluation and Research) ABS learning log about the experience of revisiting and revitalising priorities for children and families in a rapidly changing context from the summer of 2020.

Key learning from the process

To improve communication and language, diet and nutrition and social and emotional development in early childhood – and bring about systems change – across five sites, is ambitious.

Children’s development is influenced by multiple intertwined factors. Our domain ToCs focus on eight of these factors that are most relevant to the LEAP population and services.

We had to gather a wide range of evidence beyond the traditionally valued academic research, for example, consulting with frontline practitioners and the community.

Evaluating the impact of a place-based, collective initiative requires five conditions, according to case studies on large-scale social change:

  1. A common agenda
  2. A shared measurement system
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities
  4. Continuous communication
  5. Backbone support

Evaluating LEAP’s impact required a sixth condition: mindset shifts. This is where people and organisations working on the same issues shift from working in isolation to working together to achieve complex social problems.

We’ve needed support from across the organisation to stay true to these six conditions – including investment in the time and resource required to develop this infrastructure.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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