Pathways for Change: 10 Theories to Inform Advocacy and Policy Change Efforts

Published: November 2013

Type: Publication

One of our most popular publications, this brief, produced in collaboration with ORS Impact, summarizes 10 theories grounded in social science about how policy change happens.


Advocates of all stripes seek changes in policy as a way to achieve impact at a scale and degree of sustainability that differs from what can be achieved through direct services or programs alone. Advocates and funders each come to policy work with a set of beliefs and assumptions about how change will happen, and these beliefs shape their thinking about what conditions are necessary for success, which tactics to undertake in which situations, and what changes need to be achieved along the way.

These worldviews are theories of change, whether or not they explicitly have been stated or documented as such. When articulated as theories of change, these strategy and belief system roadmaps can clarify expectations internally and externally, and can facilitate more effective planning and evaluation.

This brief lays out 10 theories grounded in diverse social science disciplines and worldviews that have relevance to the world of advocacy and policy change.

Global and tactical theories include:

  1. “Large Leaps” or Punctuated Equilibrium theory
  2. “Policy Windows” or Agenda-Setting theory
  3. “Coalition” theory or Advocacy Coalition Framework
  4. “Power Politics” or Power Elites theory
  5. “Regime” theory
  6. “Messaging and Frameworks” theory
  7. “Media Influence” or Agenda-Setting theory3
  8. “Grassroots” or Community Organizing theory
  9. “Group Formation” or Self-Categorization theory
  10. “Diffusion” theory or Diffusion of Innovations

The theories can help to untangle beliefs and assumptions about the inner workings of the policymaking process and identify causal connections supported by research to explain how and why a change may or may not occur. This piece is not meant to be comprehensive of all possible relevant theories and approaches; rather, it introduces and illustrates a handful of theories that may be useful to advocates, funders, and evaluators.