dataviz, program evaluation, performance management

Predicting the future: How to make a projection or a target

March 09, 2020 | Pieta Blakely


In a previous post, I discussed how to chart imputed, real, and projected data - and I promised to discuss in a future post how to project future data. I keep my promises, so here it is: how to make a projection or target.

What are projections and targets?

Projections and targets forecast specific outcomes at both the program and population levels. Today, however, I’m going to focus on how to make projections and targets for your organization’s programs. But first, it’s important to note a few key differences between projections and targets:

A projection simply forecasts the future without judgment — it’s as close as you can get to a statement of fact. 

A target, however, is aspirational. It’s something you can rally your staff around — it’s what you think you can achieve if you make some changes to your program. This makes targets particularly important for monitoring the success of a new intervention.

How do I make a projection?

The goal of a projection is to simply note where your outcomes will be if current trends continue and no major changes are made to your program. There are two primary ways to make a projection:

  1. Look at your trend line and extend it forward. It’s quite simple: you can literally use a pencil and ruler and continue to the line in the direction it’s currently heading. Of course, at some point, the curve you’ve created won’t make logical sense; however, since you’re generally projecting 3-5 years in the future, your predictions should be reasonable for now.
  2. Adjust for internal and external factors. This process is slightly more complicated and requires you to take into consideration any internal or external factors that could affect your current trend line. For example, maybe there’s new legislation that will make your organization’s work more difficult. In that case, you would want to adjust down a bit. 

Making projections is more of an art than a science, so you don’t need to be a statistician to make these charts. The point is to get a general idea of what you can expect. After all, no one can perfectly predict the future!

How do I make a target?

Making targets is an important part of the planning process for your organization. Targets are more important because they commit you to your program goals and will be accountable for. Because they are flexible and small-scale (remember: we’re talking 1-5 years), they are both meaningful and achievable.

As with projections, you will want to look at your historic performance as the first step in making a target. Where projections and targets part ways, though, is that targets incorporate more factors (and aspirational thinking!) that create many different ways to look at the future. To make a target, you’ll want to:

  1. Start with the projection. What do you expect will happen based on the environment and anything else that is going on in your organization.  What about other factors? For example, maybe there are new sources of funding available and you feel confident your new grant writer is up to the challenge of obtaining those funds — so maybe you raise your fundraising targets a bit to reflect this possibility.
  2. Look at your organization’s new commitments and improvements. Here’s where your aspirations kick in. Is there a partnership with another agency that will multiply your efforts? Did you vastly improve technology that will help you deliver services? How much better do you think you’ll do than last year? 
  3. Adjust accordingly. Consider all of the above and the effect it will have on your trend line. Remember, this is an art, not a science, so it may include some guesswork. However, if you have data, use it! Maybe that training you just did with your entire staff has data that shows a 20% improvement in results. Factor that in.

After you set your targets, you should monitor your progress closely, as that progress indicates how well your changes are being implemented. If you are not hitting your target, you can examine why and see what adjustments might need to be made to your work. For example, maybe the change you were going to implement that contributed to your aspirational new target didn’t actually get implemented. Maybe something unexpected happened that took you way off course. Or maybe you were just wrong in your theory! Continually checking in on these targets can help you readjust plans moving forward. 

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Tags: dataviz, program evaluation, performance management