Change begets change: Using Theory of Change for improved post-2020 conservation

Continued global biodiversity loss highlights the need to sustainably meet the needs of people to conserve biodiversity. This is the objective of the recently proposed Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. However, contextually inappropriate conservation interventions commonly prevent achieving this balance, and require more holistic, systematic and adaptive conservation planning and management. Theory of Change offers a useful tool.

What is Theory of Change?

Theory of Change is a way of thinking  and/ or a product, and can be represented in various forms. Simply put it involves ‘mapping’ out what needs to happen for a sequence of actions to achieve a desired result.

Challenges to conservation Theories of Change

In a recent paper in Conservation Science and Practice my colleagues and I explore why the use of Theory of Change in conservation lags behind international development. We identify six key challenges to Theory of Change use: the use of diverse terminology and complicated representations; incorporating sufficient complexity; scale-appropriateness; improving multi-actor engagement; enhancing enabling conditions; and improving the sustainability and the ‘evaluability’ of Theories of Change.

The use of diverse terminology and overly complicated Theories of Change affects promoting ‘best’ practices, and constrains actor engagement and support. This is highly relevant to conservation interventions tackling multiple objectives, amongst multiple and diverse actors interacting within diverse contexts and at various scales. The post-2020 framework is designed at a global level but requires national- and local-level interventions to achieve its objective. However, interactions between diverse actors and institutions affect success. While strong partnerships are crucial, as the post-2020 framework emphasizes, greater recognition and participation of women, youth, and local and indigenous peoples is required. Consequently, post-2020 conservation interventions must better align with local socio-economic and cultural priorities, develop actor capabilities, and especially motivate and present opportunities for active engagement of these actors. Lastly, evaluation is key to inform required continuous adaptation.

A framework for robust conservation Theories of Change

We propose that developing and applying robust conservation Theories of Change should be informed by six core steps: 1) identify the beneficiaries (i.e. all actors affecting or affected by the intervention); 2) identify desired results; 3) analyze the contextual factors and conditions that may affect achieving the desired results; 4) identify actions, and the associated assumptions, to achieve the desired results; 5) implement and evaluate actions to identify issues; and 6) constantly adapt the intervention to better achieve the desired results (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Six key steps to developing robust conservation Theories of Change. Source: Rice et al. (2020).

These six steps inform our proposed framework, which strongly emphasizes the importance of identifying and consulting beneficiaries throughout to produce a shared vision (Figure 2). It also highlights the need to identify contextual issues requiring attention and what ‘change triggers’ might promote the intervention. This commonly includes poverty and degraded natural resources, and enabling policy. Evaluation is especially key to identifying persistent and newly emerging issues and informs adaption of actions to increase the presence of enabling factors and conditions (i.e. ‘causal assumptions’), which in turn are assumed positively affected by these actions. Causal assumptions include institutional support, strong local leadership, alignment with local priorities, and local participation. Lastly, consideration of (potential) external influences, like a nation’s international conservation commitments, including the post-2020 framework, is also important.

Figure 2: A framework for developing robust conservation Theories of Change. Source: Rice et al. (2020).

Way forward

Post-2020 conservation will benefit from producing both initial overarching Theories of Change, and more detailed Theories of Change. While the post-2020 framework provides the former, it requires detailed, robust national- and local-level Theories of Change to sufficiently incorporate context and better account for scale, provide greater clarity on actor’s contributions and roles, and improve collaboration. Lastly, conservation Theories of Change are influenced, and may be improved by ‘co-producing’ Theories of Change with other sectors such as health and agriculture.

Consequently, while Theories of Change will never be perfect or complete, they offer a flexible and useful tool for designing holistic and adaptable interventions for improved post-2020 conservation. Yet, this requires continuous experimentation and adaptation. In doing so conservation may better meet the needs of people and reduce biodiversity loss, i.e. the post-2020 framework’s objective.


Author information

Wayne Stanley Rice, Interdisciplinary Environmental Scientists

Department of Environmental & Geographical Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa; and Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

This blog post is based upon research recently published in Conservation Science and Practice: Rice W. S., Sowman M. R., & Bavinck M. (2020). Using Theory of Change to improve post-2020 conservation: A proposed framework and recommendations for use. Conservation Science and Practice: e301. DOI: 10.1111/csp2.301

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