“How do you measure your results?” It’s usually not the first question I receive from a donor interested in our work, but it is the second or third. And it’s not always easy to answer.
Measuring impact in the nonprofit sector can be tricky business. In the business world, it’s much more straightforward: profitability is still the standard-bearer for an “effective business.” But in the nonprofit sector, especially educational organizations like Denver Institute, our goal is to shape human lives. How would we know if we were effective at a program like, say, the 5280 Fellowship?
In early 2020, we recruited two outside researchers — Stephen Assink (MAR) and Andrew Lynn (PhD), both from the University of Virginia — to help us with that question. As trained social scientists with experience doing research for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the Thriving Cities Group, Stephen and Andrew brought both objectivity and expertise to our question. So, how did we tackle this question of impact?
First, we clarified our outcomes, which are all built around our five guiding principles. What do we mean by “effectiveness”? We mean people who think theologically about their work, embrace redemptive relationships, create good work, seek deep spiritual health, and serve others sacrificially in their communities and city.
Second, we gave them an overview of the 5280 Fellowship, and the elements we’ve built into the program to bring about real formation. City leader meetings, cohort discussions, mentoring triads, retreats, Saturday sessions, personal formation projects, professional impact projects — each element is carefully chosen to fuel change around our five guiding principles.
From there, Stephen and Andrew conducted both qualitative (interview) surveys and quantitative (online, multiple choice) surveys of pre-program participants (Year 5), and alumni — both recent graduates (Year 4) and our initial cohort (Year 1).
Between 65 participants and 4,000 unique data points, what did they find?
Today we’re publishing 5280 Fellowship Assessment results, which is the first step in a multi-year study measuring the impact of the 5280 Fellowship.
Here’s a sample of what we learned:
|Vocational Mission||I view my work as a mission from God.||50%||88%|
|Redemptive Work||I know how my work makes my city or culture better.||71%||100%|
|Spiritual Growth||I do weekly spiritual disciplines beyond Bible study or prayer.||36%||71%|
|Work Relationships||My spiritual disciplines improve my work habits.||78%||95%|
|Civic Engagement||Iâm active in a nonprofit or civic organization.||29%||50%|
In the study, we measured the Fellows' change in five areas: theology, relationships, views about their work, professional leadership, and civic engagement.
We found strong growth particularly in three areas: theological thinking about their work and our culture, new and lasting relationships between Fellows and leaders in our city, and adopting spiritual practices that lead to internal wholeness and health.
One CEO said about the program, “I can’t stress enough how I’ve seen people’s mentality change as a result of the program.” A seminary lecturer commented about the program, “I think the biggest change for [the Fellows] is a shift from … an instrumental versus intrinsic value of work.” They now ask, “Does my work actually contribute toward the mission of God to reconcile all things to himself?”
Assink and Lynn also measured the 5280 Fellows in comparison with a control group of their evangelical peers across the U.S. and found a marked difference in values and practices, especially with respect to weekly church attendance (49% national average compared to 76% for Fellows), participating in monthly in Bible study or prayer group (28% nationally, 80% Fellows), and pursuing excellence in their work because of their faith (78% nationally, 89% Fellows).
Here’s what the report means for us and those we serve:
Our goal is to lead the way for similar programs across the nation to both measure their impact and to commit to the rigor of testing their hypotheses. Looking to larger studies like D. Michael Lindsay’s study on the White House Fellowship, we believe that early-career fellowship programs can and should be measured — and are critical in an emerging leader’s life. DIFW is a standard-bearer here for other faith-motivated and secular programs.
The value of outside researchers is that they’re not there just to tell you how great you are. They found areas where we see less growth in our Fellows to date: growth in professional leadership and commitment to civic engagement and community involvement. As we plan and prepare to train leaders in other cities to launch their programs through CityGate, we are seeking to invest in improved processes, curriculum, and training that helps our Fellows truly live “from the inside out” and make a measurable impact on their workplaces, industries, and cities. We also need to do more study over time to see stronger correlations between the program and Fellows’ lives, careers, and civic impact.
The 5280 Fellowship — and the forthcoming CityGate Fellowships — really are effective. The educational model is a unique blend of spiritual formation, professional development, theological learning, network-building, leadership growth, and community engagement. Research has found that one’s twenties are an even more important time for career and leadership formation than college or even childhood. The 5280 Fellowship is blazing new ground in shaping men and women to love God, serve their neighbors, and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.