Creating Useful Logic Models

Most human services non-profits have at least heard of a logic model, and most likely have created one for a grant application. A logic model is a visual way to explain your theory of change. United Way of America popularized the logic model process in 1996. A logic model should be more than a just a step in writing a grant application-it can, and should be, useful to your organization.

The basic idea of a logic model is to show the relationships between inputs and outcomes, plus intermediate activities, outputs and environment, of a program or intervention. At the lowest level, it shows your program’s theory of change: if we provide these resources, then we can conduct these activities. If our population participates in these activities, then these outputs will occur. If all these things happen, our theory says this outcome (or change) will happen in our community or for our participants. By visually drawing these relationships, we should recognize the assumptions we make about the connections between our activities and the expected results.

Since the main purpose of the logic model is to express a program’s theory of change, a common process is to start with the desired outcomes and work backwards. For example, if an organization wants to change Problem X in the community, the planning team might say: “What needs to happen to cause Problem X to change?” Continuing to ask what would change or impact each preceding step will help your team focus on results rather than activities.

One of the common mistakes when creating a logic model is confusing outputs with outcomes. Outputs are the programs or services an organization provides, while outcomes are the difference those programs and services made in our community. Here are some examples:

Output: food pantry with evening hours. Outcome: person working a low-wage job eats dinner today.

Output: free car seats for babies and installation assistance. Outcome: keeping a child safe in the car.

Output: the city public works department’s project design and number of potholes repaired. Outcome: better traffic flow, shorter travel times, and fewer accidents.

As you can see, the thing we really care about is the outcome. Since outcomes can be difficult to measure and we assume the link between our outputs and the outcome are obvious, it’s easy to focus on the activities and outputs instead of outcomes. Using a logic model process can help.

Since some funding agencies require logic models in a certain visual format, teams can get bogged down on making ideas fit into the logic model boxes instead of focusing on the modeling process itself. One of the best ways we’ve seen of helping a team through this process is for the team to use a white board and sticky notes to easily change headings and order of ideas. You can start by dividing the white board into the four columns-inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes-then team members write ideas onto sticky notes which are placed into the columns. Team members, or a facilitator, can draw arrows, rearrange notes, and add new columns or boxes, even working over several days.

Once your team has reached consensus on its theory of change, you can put it into a visual format. You might even end up with multiple models. For example, an overview model then more detailed model(s) for specific programs. Below are just a few examples of what your model might look like. The one most non-profits are familiar with-the United Way’s template.

Sometimes, a flow chart logic model visually explains your theory of change more fully.

In the last few years, we have also seen network analysis-style diagrams being used to visually express logic models. The American Evaluation Association website is a good place to learn more about current discussions and best practices in logic model creation.

Large grantmakers such as the United Way, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all encourage non-profit organizations to use logic models for more than grant applications. Some of the most common uses these funding agencies suggest are:

  • Program planning
  • Implementation development
  • Disseminating information to employees and partners
  • Identify your underlying beliefs and assumptions
  • Provide a framework for team conversation and understanding
  • Make sure evaluations focus on the most important parts of the program

Once you have your theory of change mapped onto the team whiteboard, it’s time to create the visual. If you are creating the logic model for a grant application, the grantmaker may provide a template in MS Word, MS Excel, or another format. If not, the United Way provides templates in both MS Word and Excel. If you want something a little fancier, or in a flowchart or network analysis visual, you could use a free or low-cost diagramming tool such as or LucidChart (both given high ratings by PC Magazine in 2016).

Logic models can be powerful tools when a non-profit organization uses them to communicate the theory of change behind program decisions. While creating one can be a daunting task, many resources exist to help. See the Additional Reading below.

Additional Reading:

We suggest the following classics, which you may find at your local grants library or online.

United Way of America. (1996). Measuring program outcomes: A practical approach.

Arlington, VA.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation (2004). Logic Model Development Guide. Battle Creek, MI.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (2005). Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention. Office of the Director, Office of Strategy and Innovation. Introduction to Program Evaluation for Public Health Programs: A Self-Study Guide. Atlanta, GA.

Ellen Taylor-Powell and Ellen Henert, University of Wisconsin Extension (2008 ). Developing a logic model: Teaching and training guide. Madison, WI.

American Evaluation Association has multiple publications on logic models.