We live in a complex and dynamic time of uncertainty, with a multiplicity of relationships and rapidly changing social, political, economic and environmental landscapes. As a statewide nonprofit, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence understands the need to be centered and ready for change. However, like many nonprofits, we have been stretched in too many directions. As Judy Burns reflects in her poem Fire, “too much of a good thing, too many logs
packed in too tight can douse the flames almost as surely as a pail of water would.” All of these logs we had been stacking were justifiably good work, but should all of it be our work?

In this time of disruption and opportunity, our organization needs to be more strategic, adaptive and demonstrate a shared vision on how we can impact deeply entrenched social justice issues. It is essential we deepen our understanding of the root causes of gender violence — domestic violence, relationship abuse, stalking and sexual assault — that disproportionately impact girls and women and all people who challenge the norm of heterosexual male dominance in order to create real solutions.

Through an organizational development grant from the NoVo Foundation’s Move to End Violence initiative, the Idaho Coalition retained an organizational consultant to develop a tool to identify the best and highest use of our organizational resources. We needed an organizational tool to provide common language, to allow us to organize our thoughts and assess our assumptions, to build on the existing knowledge, research and experience of gender violence and to integrate systemic oppressions (racism, classism, homophobia, able-ism and adultism) in creating real solutions. We wanted to change the discussion from “what we do” to “what is the change we want to see in the world.” We needed a tool that could be foundational and aspirational — that would situate the organization for social change and that could be operationalized across the organization. Was this tool — something akin to a Leatherman multi-purpose tool — even feasible for nonprofit organizations? TBR7: Victimization
Monday: Bostaph’s intro
Monday: King & Bostaph, et al. on Idaho victim services
Tuesday: Fisher on sexual violence on campus
Wednesday: Miller on theory of change
Thursday: Cares crime victims’ classroom needs
Friday: Franklin on the victim-offender connection
Friday: Campbell on police and victims of sexual violence


There are several organizational tools used by nonprofits to guide their work. A logic model is a visual tool best used for discrete projects that are time-constrained. A logic model generally identifies the resources, activities, outputs and outcomes the project hopes to achieve. A logic model does not work towards an organizational shared horizon, but rather a measurable goal. A strategic plan, on the other hand, while usually providing a vision, is based on the ability to predict the future based on historical trend lines, compiling data and producing directives. However, according to many nonprofit experts, the strategic plan is dead.

In our rapidly changing world and with the complexity of our social systems, the future is no longer predictable. Neither a logic model nor a strategic plan would provide the foundational values — the identity of our organization — and create the framework for an organization to practice strategic thinking and embrace risk-taking in order create social change. Neither a logic model nor a strategic plan provided the bold social change we were seeking.

In our research on nonprofits with impact, we identified a new tool for our organization: a theory of change. A theory of change allows social change organizations to identify root causes, makes underlying assumptions explicit and pivots the organizational focus from “what we are doing” to “what we want to achieve.” It can still form a foundation for strategic thinking, on-going decision-making and evaluation, as other non-profit tools provide.


A theory of change can be represented as a one-page graphic that serves as an identity and foundational tool for the organization’s future efforts, including decision-making, communications, recruitment/hiring, initiative design, partnerships and evaluation. It is a living document that can evolve over time.

Based on their expertise and enthusiasm working with organizations committed to transformative social change, we worked with Jara Dean-Coffey, founder and principal of jdcPartnerships in Oakland, California, and Nicole Farkouh, a consultant, to guide our design team — comprised of five staff, five board members and two external partners — through an experiential learning process. Between September 2014 and February 2015, we had four convenings, where the design team worked to foster reflection and the ability to engage in deep conversations about the desired impact of the organization, root causes of violence, our values and our key social issues. We considered multiple perspectives, including those of our community and tribal programs and members, made the implicit explicit and reflected critically on document drafts.

A graphic recorder documented our sessions, visually capturing our words and experiences on large sheets of paper, allowing staff and design team members a visual reflection document to share the process. Between the four convenings, our internal team sought feedback from staff, anti-violence consultants and our organizational development consultants.

The resulting framework has provided the Idaho Coalition with a graphic illustration that is an articulation of the best and highest use of our resources in preventing and responding to gender violence. This explicit definition of our organizational purpose and identity is embodied in a graphic that contains:

  • Our organizational values, such as compassion
  • Our issue of gender violence fueled by multiple systemic oppressions
  • Our focus or priority population on girls and women and people who are gender oppressed
  • Our strategies across the organization
  • Our context and environment in which we work, such as our essential partnership with community and tribal domestic violence programs
  • Changes we hope to see in the world such as compassionate communities with social equity and collective liberation

Through this theory of change, we were able to identify a set of assumptions and abstract projections across the spectrum of violence prevention and responses to violence against girls, women and people who are gender oppressed. By articulating our core organizational values, we have been able to integrate a thinking-action-mind approach, paired with a feeling-relational-heart approach. It is about breaking the habit of staying only in our heads and understanding that our mind and body are interconnected in ways that allow for physical experience to enhance and shift our world view. We identified the strategies or approaches we want to implement across our work. For example, one of our organizational strategies is to center solutions on the “last girl.” How we understand a problem informs what we imagine solutions to be.


The “last girl” concept means placing those most marginalized by society at the center of our work so the solutions we imagine can work for them. Gandhi would have called this person “the face of the poorest and the weakest.” Martin Luther King, Jr., might have called him “the least among us.” This strategy helps us to understanding the lived-experience of the most marginalized populations and the impact of societal forces on their lives. We need to upend this paradigm and amplify voices from marginalized communities and make the last girl’s experience visible across multiple systems — the criminal justice system, the health care system, and more..

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” — via one of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948.

When we intentionally center solutions on the last girl, then the root causes of violence will likely have been addressed for all. This strategy of centering solutions on the last girl has begun to shift our organizational focus in order to reach communities that are impacted by, or at risk of, gender violence and are marginalized by society.

While the language in our theory of change evolved to reflect our discussions and the future of the movement, our work continues to be rooted in ending gender violence, strengthening communities in responding to gender violence, advocating for systems change and changing social norms to value girls, women and healthy models of masculinity.


The Idaho Coalition staff are now field testing this theory of change and our decision screen, as we experiment with operationalizing it, and then refine it prior to making it public. After experimenting with and refining the framework, the Idaho Coalition will develop an intentional approach to engage in conversations with our community and tribal domestic and sexual violence programs and organizational membership.

The theory of change provides our vision, explains gender violence and suggests ways we can make a difference from a multi-generational perspective. Our next strategic thinking step, over the next few months, is to determine what root cause or part of the problem of gender violence is most critical to focus on, what role we should play, where to focus our efforts and how will we measure our success.

We believe our theory of change and the decision screen will provide our organization the tools for monitoring our work so we can be accountable to our membership and our stakeholders as well as to girls and women and all people who challenge the norm of heterosexual male dominance. The systemic use of the theory of change will help us (un)learn habits or ineffective processes for change. It will help us to constantly challenge our assumptions, simplify the complex nature of the context in which we live, integrate new approaches and strategic thinking into the work we do and build toward a shared vision.

In an age of distraction and constant movement — a period with too many logs on the fire — creating the time and space for this deep thinking and conversations about our work was essential if we were going to pivot from a project factory to a social change organization. And in the process, because we were able to leave ourselves and our own agendas behind, we were able to create the largest possible horizon of the changes we want to see in the world.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.