How Understanding the “Theory of Change” Makes Us Better Vegan Advocates
Part Two of a Series on Behavior Change
Posted on October 17, 2022 by VegFund Team
As a vegan advocate, you want to know that your efforts are influencing people to change their behavior and go vegan! That’s why you do what you do. Our most recent blog post, How Audience Surveys Make Us Stronger Vegan Advocates, raises thought-provoking questions that come up when you begin to evaluate the effectiveness of your activities, as some of you have, using VegFund’s film screening survey.
In Part Two of this series, we’re suggesting a framework, the Theory of Change (TOC), which is at the heart of evaluation. The practice of evaluation can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! The basic principles are easy to grasp. Evaluation should be tailored to your primary goals and can be simple to implement.
What is the Theory of Change?
“I believe that if people can have a fun day at a vegfest where they sample vegan foods, visit vendors, listen to speakers, and take home literature about the benefits of vegan living, they may adopt a vegan lifestyle!”
The above quote illustrates how the TOC model works. Theory of Change:
Includes a planned action or outreach (such as a fun vegfest with vegan foods)
Reaches audiences with information or resources (perhaps literature about vegan living) to facilitate their adoption of new skills and life practices that
Triggers an anticipated behavior change (going vegan! or taking a step in that direction)
Vegan advocates excel at jumping into action (step 1) and reaching people with good information (step 2) — but they may not always fully explore the third important step of examining whether their outreach actually leads their audience to change their behavior. In other words, do you know if and how your actions influence your audience? The behavior changes of people you interact with might be immediate, an intention to change, or none at all. And they could be significant changes in dietary behaviors or simply baby steps.
To evaluate your outreach activity based on the Theory of Change model, you would:
Form a hypothesis. Choose an activity that may influence your audience to make a change. Ideally, an activist offers an activity and information appropriate to the audience’s baseline knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
Set goals and measurable objectives. Choose ones that are attainable for your activity and reflect the behavior change you hope to observe.
Test your hypothesis. Carry out your outreach activity.
Measure the results. Gather data on your activity based on your set goals and objectives and a pre-designed tool — for example, conduct a survey, record verbal responses to pre-determined questions, request sign-ups for a challenge, etc.
Based on your results, you can tweak your hypothesis or adjust other factors revealed by your data, such as changing up the time of day for a future event to increase the number of attendees, introducing new speakers, offering different types of food samples, etc. Then, test again through more outreach. By doing this, you ensure continuous learning and improvement.
How to use TOC: Begin with the end in mind
Examining and measuring the behavior change associated with your outreach actions and the overall success of your activities requires the activist to begin with the end in mind. In other words, establish goals and measurable objectives well in advance of the event.
Spending a little bit of time at the outset to explore that last step in the TOC model — measuring the results of your activity — allows advocates to test assumptions, learn, adapt, and improve their future advocacy. Ultimately, evaluation helps advocates determine if the time and effort they’ve invested in their activity are worthwhile, based on their success in influencing the desired change.
But how do you evaluate your activities in a way that’s worth your limited time and resources? We know that you often have your hands more than full coordinating the details of your event or other outreach. You may wonder how you could possibly make time for gathering feedback through, for example, audience surveys when your first priority is conveying the value of a plant-based diet.
Simple evaluation examples
Evaluation can start with a basic design. While it’s often not possible to evaluate whether or not your audience ultimately goes vegan or plans to do so, you can evaluate interim steps and gather feedback that will help you refine your outreach.
For example, an advocate might hypothesize that tasting vegan cheese makes people more likely to choose vegan options over dairy-based cheeses. The goal would be to change their perceptions about taste and motivate their considerations to replace dairy-based cheeses with vegan cheeses. Their measurable objective could be to share at least 100 samples and observe that at least 50% of samplers indicate that they will consider purchasing vegan cheese in the future. They could measure their results by asking each person who takes a sample if they’ll consider buying the product in the future and keeping a simple tally.
The activist can amend their theory and strategies based on the feedback. If the results fall short of their goal, they might consider, for example, offering a different product or simply asking the sampling participants why they would not purchase the product. They could also try presenting the samples in a different context, such as a grilled cheese sandwich, pizza, or pasta dish, to see if the outcomes change. Or, they could try sharing more compelling information about the benefits of the vegan product with the sampler.
Here are a few examples that incorporate a TOC strategy:
A plant-based health advocate hosts a cooking demo and decides to count how many people sign up for their healthy recipe email list, suggesting how many attendees are interested in trying vegan meals at home as a result of the cooking demo.
Activists at a vegan booth encourage visitors to sign up for a vegan challenge, indicating how many visitors are committed to going vegan for 30 days because of what they’ve learned.
After a film screening, an advocate shares a brief (e.g., 3-question) survey via slips of paper, a link, or informal conversations. The questions are easy to answer (multiple-choice checkboxes) and are relevant to the advocate’s immediate objectives. The survey asks, for example, about demographic information, the most attractive features of the event, and the participants’ level of interest in trying vegan options as a result of the information shared.
An example of evaluating an activity with a known audience
In some outreach scenarios, advocates have the advantage of developing their goals and objectives with input from the very audience they’re trying to reach. Brian Stafford had just that opportunity when he decided to reach out to his co-workers about his idea for a plant-based work program.
Working at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), Brian was curious to know if his co-workers were interested in plant-based eating, given the well-documented health and environmental benefits. He sent out a simple Google Form and received 116 responses.
What did Brian learn? Most people were interested in plant-based eating but assumed it was difficult to do. He also learned that most wanted help finding alternatives for meat and dairy and that their top concern about going plant-based was whether they’d be able to find or prepare food that is satisfying for the whole family.
Armed with this knowledge, Brian designed a workplace program to meet their needs. By providing information on vegan alternatives and family-friendly recipes, his hope was that some of his co-workers might begin to choose plant-based options over meat and dairy.
After the series concluded, Brian once again polled his audience, this time receiving 127 responses. He learned that the most attractive features of his program were the recipes, learning about the science that supports plant-based eating for health and the environment, and the social aspects of gathering with co-workers.
Now that Brian has successfully tested his theories about his plant-based program, he’s prepared to make improvements and further support his co-workers’ vegan journeys in the future.
Using evaluation data from a current event to determine future theories of change
VegFund and vegfest organizers are working together to evaluate the outcomes of vegfests in 2022 and 2023 to help organizers test possible theories of change for future festivals. Using a 20-question, 2-minute online survey accessible via a QR code, VegFund and select organizers are surveying attendees at eight vegfests.
Using this survey, we are gathering metrics on a few key questions:
Who is attending the vegfest, by current diet type and race?
Are this year’s attendees likely to attend next year?
What content and activities did attendees most appreciate?
Did the event influence attendees to consider dietary behavior changes?
What have we learned so far?
Based on the results of the survey, one vegfest gained several interesting insights from their 2022 event:
About 50% of all respondents identified as vegan, and 80% as non-Hispanic white.
More than 80% of respondents reported their interest in attending again next year.
More than 70% of survey takers reported that the festival influenced their thoughts about behavior change.
Respondents reported that food sampling and interacting with vendors were the activities that most influenced their consideration of behavior change. More than 30% of those surveyed selected these events as the most influential, while other activities scored a rating of less than 10%.
Based on the outcomes for 2022, the vegfest organizers were able to establish at least two theories of change and related goals and objectives for 2023 to heighten their future success.
GOALS for 2023
OBJECTIVES for 2023
Introduce veganism to a more diverse mix of people from various races.
TOC 1: We’ll spend more of our marketing outreach budget and energies in BIPOC communities in 2023 with the intention of drawing a more diverse audience that is representative of the racial demographics of people living in our community. We believe, too, that this will widen outreach to more non-vegans
In 2023, we’ll measure how well we’ve managed to diversify the races of people attending our vegfest and whether we’ve drawn in more non-vegan attendees. Our objective is that attendees are representative of the actual diversity in our area and 60% of the attendees are non-vegan.
Festival is influential in promoting dietary change
TOC 2: We’ll remove events from our 2022 programming that were the least appreciated by attendees and offer more food sampling and food vendors in 2023 because they strongly influenced attendee attitudes in 2022.
Festival content and activities influence the attitudes of at least 75% of attendees to consider a vegan diet, and each program activity is appreciated by a minimum of 50% of the attendees.
Lessons to learn and questions to raise
VegFund’s hope is that organizers will be able to use the data from this project to adapt their activities to include more of what is working well and focus their energies on activities that would deliver even greater results from future vegfests.
For example, if we find that the majority of vegfest attendees are non-Hispanic white, can the organizers market their event more strategically to drive inclusivity? If some of the programmed activities draw less than 10% of surveyed attendees, should these activities be dropped in favor of other more popular activities? If we learn that more than 80% of attendees are vegan, what can we do to attract more non-vegan attendees?
Establishing even basic theories of change, goals, and objectives and then measuring performance outcomes can be eye-opening to activists and give them confidence that their efforts are yielding results. A single instance of activist outreach is successful if it even modestly advances the audience’s knowledge, skills, or personal practices.
Each step raises awareness and opens our audience to more information in the future. Engaging in the practice of evaluation, starting with a theory of change hypothesis, will help us know how close we are to helping others adopt vegan living.
While, as activists, we hope to fast-track people to adopt a vegan lifestyle, we also understand that, for most, going vegan is a journey. Each interaction we have with someone could be a touchpoint along their path to behavior change. Therefore, we should gauge our expectations relative to how much we can expect from one outreach activity. The objectives and outcomes we measure should be defined accordingly.
Establish your theory of change model and evaluation practice in the spirit of experimentation, learning, and reinvention. Don’t be discouraged if your evaluation process does not deliver your expected results. Instead, examine what worked and what did not, take the lessons learned and tweak the approach to test for the next time. There is no failure in trying!