November 16, 2015 jesikah

Our Theory of Change & How It Can Change Us

If you’re like me, the term “theory of change” makes you feel both thrill and dread. It’s exciting to conceive a model for making change. Who doesn’t want a framework that spells out how to move the needle on social issues in a pithy and coherent way?   Theories make assessment easier, right?

Then the quandary sets in. How do we take a blue-sky civic mission and bring it down to a public radio newsroom reality. How do we frame community-engaged journalism in a way that’s aspirational as well as feasible and measurable?

I stepped right into these questions and feelings this past year as I got started in my new gig as Senior Community Engagement Strategist at Capital Public Radio. As station management and I negotiated my job description, it became clear that we needed a shared understanding of what we hoped to accomplish by doing community engagement, not to mention what such engagement looked like in journalistic enterprise.   We needed to articulate our hypothesis: engage communities in X ways so Y would happen. Then measure impact through Z. That’s a theory of change.

For me writing a theory of change is like going to the dentist. You know you need to. But you sure don’t want to. It’s tedious and uncomfortable, if not boring.

But I got busy. I read gobs of community engagement how-to manuals and impact assessment reports (spoiler alert: not the most compelling reads). I studied other journalism projects and talked to a bunch of evaluators. Through the process, I amassed a long list of theory of change ideas and examples. It was overwhelming.

Fortunately, at the very moment my head was spinning, I got to work with Jessica Clark, founder and director of Dot Connector Studio. Jessica is THE media impact assessment maven. Theory of change might as well be her middle name, as she so quickly and deftly takes sprawling concepts caked thick with do-good ideals and fashions them in to bite-size statements that resonate across a public media ecosystem (reporters, editors, engagers, funders).

Bouncing ideas with Jessica led me to craft a theory of change for the work I’m leading at Capital Public Radio. One that feels both aspirational AND feasible. Here’s the core idea (ahem, theory!):

By engaging a broad array of residents around key public issues and engaging community members and partners in a participatory storytelling process we

– Inform the newsroom and deepen our understanding of the issues,
– Report more authentically on community perspectives and needs, and
– Surface and share diverse voices and perspectives.

This work helps our audiences to better understand, empathize with, and act on the issues under consideration, which leads to more engaged citizens, improved civic and cultural life, and greater appreciation for the role of public radio.

Embedded in this theory are a few key assumptions:

Engaging community groups in this way demonstrates how public media serves them and the communities they care about. This forges a greater sense of ownership and interest in public media.

Bringing journalists, community leaders, and people directly affected by social issues to collectively report on a story generates journalism that is relevant, responsive, artful, and impactful.

What difference has this theory made at the station? To be honest, not much so far. We have yet to discuss it as a news team. For a theory of change to take root, those whom it impacts need to be a part of the conversation. That’s clearly the next step.

Our public radio newsroom (like so many others) is ripe for an extended community engagement conversation. There is so much information and ambition flying around. And so little time. It’s easy to pitch stories we’re personally interested in and know how to tell. It’s even more efficient to take up ideas sent via press releases and turn around and call the usual suspects.

That’s why a theory of change is so important. It’s a guide for planning and decision-making. It can help editors, reporters and producers have a better conversation about what’s newsworthy, what stories we invest in and how those stories can make a difference in the lives of our listeners and community members.

Do you have theory of change for your civic storytelling work? Share it with me!

Photo by Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio. Graphic by Dr. Lindsay Green Barbar.