4 Using assumptions to help identify key risks

At the bottom of each column of the DIY Theory of Change template is a box labelled ‘Key assumptions’. Assumptions help to explain the Theory of Change process and the connections between the measurable effects, wider benefits and the longer-term goal, as well as how and why proposed activities are expected to bring these changes about.

Assumptions are often taken for granted and may be based on opinions or beliefs. However, they can also be founded on research or best practice. Assumptions can help to catalyse a discussion about critical questions and lead to consensus among stakeholders, strengthening the case for the pathway selected.

Two oval shapes overlapping to create a third oval in the centre with text in each oval (left to right): A false assumption, Mistakes!, Action
Figure 3: Challenging assumptions can help avoid mistakes

Assumptions that turn out to be incorrect can lead to mistakes (Figure 3). It is therefore very important in developing a Theory of Change that you identify, analyse and challenge assumptions with your stakeholders. This will lead to increased understanding and a process of refining both assumptions and other elements of the theoretical framework.

Case Study 1: The problems with assumptions

Grace works on a livelihoods project in Malawi funded by development partners. The problem being addressed is high levels of youth unemployment, so the target group is ‘out-of-school youths’. However, there are several assumptions underlying this definition. Grace summarises some of these below together with their associated problems.

Youths belong to an accepted age group.The definition of youth is variable. In Malawi it includes everyone between the ages of 10 and 35. However, the project may not be aimed at everyone in this age range. Also, there is an assumption that everyone can identify his or her own age, which is not always the case.
Out-of-school youths are in need of support.Some young people may have opted out of school and started enterprises or are in gainful employment.
Out-of-school youths are beyond school age.Out-of-school youths can be of school age (see above). In many countries, including Malawi, not all children enrol in, or complete, school. Sometimes children do not attend because they are unable to afford school fees, or they are required to help in the home.
Levels of youth unemployment are known.Unemployment is not always easy to define and measure. Youths may be involved in some kind of economic activity while still not fully or gainfully employed. In many cases systems may not be adequate to accurately measure unemployment.

Each one of Grace’s assumptions (and you may have thought of more) could lead to discussion and debate among stakeholders. Within a Theory of Change process, this discussion, and subsequent refining/redefining, can contribute to a theoretical framework that more accurately reflects the reality of a situation.

If you proceed without working through assumptions you increase the likelihood of encountering unforeseen difficulties along the way. Building on the example above, if Grace had not adequately defined ‘youths’ before promoting the project in the community there could have been confusion about eligibility or an inconsistent approach adopted by partners, potentially risking the success of the project.

Activity 7

Timing: Allow around 10 minutes for this activity

Building on the example of maternal mortality, try to identify possible assumptions.


Building on the Theory of Change that focused on reducing maternal mortality and identified some assumptions that could lead to discussion and adjustment of the theoretical framework.

What is the problem you are trying to solve?


Poor access to, and awareness of, obstetric care, insufficient trained staff and inadequate equipment in healthcare facilities


Who is your key audience?


Women of childbearing age


Health workers: traditional birth attendants (TBAs), midwives in healthcare facilities


What is your entry point for reaching your key audience?


Village health workers


District health officers

What steps are needed to bring about change?


Training of midwives and TBAs


Improved equipment and facilities


Raising awareness among women of childbearing age


What is the measurable effect of your work?


Increased awareness among women of child bearing age


What are the wider benefits of your work?


More women have better- quality, specialist healthcare during childbirth


What is the long-term change you see as your goal?


Reduced maternal mortality

Measurable effect?


Improved knowledge and skills of midwives and traditional birth attendants


Measurable effect?


Improved provision of equipment and facilities.


Key assumptions


Adequate staff are in post


Key assumptions


Everyone agrees on the problems involved


TBAs are willing to participate

Key assumptions


Identified staff are potential agents of change


Village health workers are in post and have time to participate


Key assumptions


Resources are adequate to bring about changes


TBAs are willing to be part of training


Key assumptions


Pregnant women are reachable and receptive


Key assumptions


Pregnant women are persuaded of the benefits of delivering in a healthcare facility


3.1 Working with stakeholders