Civic Leadership Academy survey shows emerging leaders are collaborating for a stronger Chicago.

Over the course of its 10 years, the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy has trained 300 emerging and high-potential leaders in Chicago-area nonprofit and local government agencies to help those organizations thrive.

Anecdotal feedback about the program, based at the Harris School of Public Policy, has been encouraging throughout the decade. Now, data from a new survey of CLA fellows is showing the Academy’s impact may be much more robust, extensive, and nuanced than the anecdotes suggest.

More than half of the fellows have participated in institutional reforms that contributed to serving the community and achieving structural change in Chicago, the survey shows. In addition, about 80 percent of fellows report that they feel more confident in their ability to design institutional reforms to tackle problems in Chicago. Fellows shared examples of institutional reforms they led in public health, economic development, infrastructure, law enforcement, immigration, and education, to name a few areas. Furthermore, fellows provided many examples of how they are working together to pool resources to address challenges as civic leaders in Chicago.

"I led the creation of the Utility Billing Relief Program, which provided reduced water rates and debt forgiveness to low-income homeowners in the City of Chicago,” a 2016 CLA fellow wrote in a survey response. “It reformed how the City interacted with low-income residents struggling to pay their bills."

Another 2016 fellow led a $25 million capital campaign for a nonprofit that helped launch new housing and programs supporting Latino and immigrant communities facing gentrification, immigration issues and other challenges.

“Many of those projects are built today,” the fellow wrote, “thanks to the dollars raised to support capacity, secure real estate, and launch programs.”

Other compelling examples emerged from the survey:

  • A 2020 fellow coordinated $6 million in investments in sustainable green infrastructure that mitigates flooding and improves water quality in six south suburban Chicago communities.
  • A 2019 fellow co-led a collaboration of the City of Chicago, community leaders, academic institutions, and healthcare partners to mitigate the effects of COVID on black and brown communities.
  • A 2022 fellow helped arrange a partnership between Malcom X College, the NAACP and Black Fire Brigade that obtained Congressional funding to increase awareness of opportunities for people of color at the college.
  • A 2021 fellow participated in a collaboration between The Poetry Foundation, City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Chicago Public Library to create the first Chicago Poet Laureate Program. The group named a Laureate and continues working on programming to support the Laureate goals.
Professor William Howell

“All across this survey, we see evidence of leaders’ personal growth, engagement across government and non-profit sectors, and commitment to our city,” said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at University of Chicago and director of the Center for Effective Government, which administers the Academy.

“More than anything, I’m struck by how much the fellows care about this program and one another. The survey reaffirms just how much of an honor and great privilege it is to work alongside these civic leaders every year.”

Center for Effective Government Executive Director Sadia Sindhu noted that nearly 100 percent—97 percent to be exact—of survey respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the CLA experience and that 88 percent reported that CLA strengthened their commitment to working in the civic sector.

“To know that this experience strengthened their resolve and commitment and replenishes them is really meaningful to me,” added Sindhu, noting the 79 percent of respondents who said they’re more confident in designing institutional reforms and 81 percent who said CLA increased their confidence to negotiate solutions in contentious environments.

Shift toward institutional reform

Sadia Sindhu, CEG Executive Director

Launched in 2014 by the Harris School of Public Policy and Office of Civic Engagement in, the six-month, interdisciplinary CLA program was created to develop a pipeline of dynamic, collaborative-minded leaders in nonprofits and government. Faculty from across the University of Chicago—the College and professional schools—and from other universities teach a curriculum that includes lectures, workshops, conversations with civic leaders throughout Chicago, and a week-long global practicum abroad.

In establishing the Civic Leadership Academy, Harris sought to bring together nonprofits and government entities to foster collaboration in service to communities that had been historically underserved.

“We engage people who are committed to our city over a long period of time,” Howell said, “and build relationships with them. We open up a lot of space not just for them to receive the insights and wisdom of faculty and practitioners at the University of Chicago, but for them to critically reflect upon what they just heard.”

Initially designed to strengthen individual leaders, the program emphasis shifted slightly in the last five years to empowering leaders to advance institutional reform in the Chicago area, Sindhu said.

Part of that effort was building relationships that led fellows to look for ways to support and learn from each other after the fellowship—all with the goal of making meaningful change that strengthens the city, Howell said.

“I think that transcends a lot of the civic engagement offered by other institutions,” he added.

‘Hallmark of our work’

Sent via email to 269 CLA fellows between January and April 2024, the online survey focused on how the CLA may have improved fellows’ effectiveness in leadership, ability to create reform, and negotiating skills; whether the Academy helped develop productive networks and to what extent organizations and communities have benefitted from having a Fellow in the CLA.

Beyond evaluating the program’s progress toward intended outcomes, the survey also sought to help refine and improve CLA. A total of 134 fellows completed the survey.

Although missing data from non-respondents might be significant, respondents expressed different degrees of satisfaction and opinions depending on the question, and some respondents shared critical feedback, suggesting a willingness to be candid about their satisfaction levels.

A total of 74 percent of respondents reported that participation in CLA very favorably or favorably affected their organizations’ collaboration with other organizations, and more than 90 percent of respondents said they had provided professional feedback to another fellow, shared professional resources and made professional introductions. In addition, 63 percent of fellows have participated in projects involving local government agencies and nonprofits—strong evidence that CLA has developed an active and engaged network of civic leaders advocating for institutional reform.

With the data in hand, Sindhu and Howell are considering ways to enhance the CLA over its next decade.

Howell said the survey complements the Center for Effective Government’s ongoing evaluation of the Civic Leadership Academy.

“I’m quite sure we’ll put all this information to good use as we continue to experiment, fine-tune, and develop CLA—both for the fellows and for the extraordinary network of alumni who do so much to support it.”

Sindhu said the survey results have led to “a doubling down” of the CEG’s commitment to the leadership program.

“In the current atmosphere where civic spaces are shrinking,” she said, “it’s increasingly important for civic leadership not to shy away from serious issues and for us to bring together these promising leaders, some with different perspectives, to continue and expand institutional reform. The results of this survey have deepened my own resolve that the Civic Leadership Academy remains a hallmark of our work at CEG.”