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It's common knowledge that the Pikes Peak area — home to organizations like Focus on the Family, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Space Foundation — is a magnet for nonprofits.

What's not known is exactly how many such organizations the region contains, or how they impact the community. It's been a decade since the last local, comprehensive study of our nonprofit sector. Thus, an impacts report commissioned by the regional Center for Nonprofit Excellence, and performed by Summit Economics and a team of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs students, has been highly anticipated.

Thanks to a symbiotic relationship — CNE is saving $7,050 by using volunteers, while the students get real-world experience in emerging techniques — students are developing a survey that will count not only heads and dollars, but also offer a glimpse at how much "good" nonprofits offer.

"They bring money into the economy," explains Summit Economics senior partner Mike Anderson, "... but, also, local residents benefit."

The study, due for release in the first quarter of 2013, will count nonprofits in El Paso and Teller counties (not including churches); show distribution of those nonprofits by type and size; provide detailed summaries of revenues and expenditures; estimate numbers of employees; show salaries and benefits; measure goods and services; calculate a total economic impact; and give a peek at the industry's "social return on investment."

Initial work on the study already shows that 1,268 non-church nonprofits are headquartered in the region. The figure doesn't yet include nonprofits that have local offices, but not headquarters here, like Centura Health (owner of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services).

The study's next step is the detailed survey, being developed in UCCS senior instructor Regina Winters' masters-level "Research Methods" class. "I think if you do something like this," she says, "you'll remember [the skills] better."

Indeed, students Fran Silva Blayney and Juandriqua Pona affirm that the study has added a fresh dimension to their lessons, and a sense that they can help the community with their work. "It just makes it more meaningful," Silva Blayney notes. Pona adds that the experience has led her to be interested in working in the nonprofit field, something she'd never considered before.

Most exciting for the students has been the inclusion of a few questions focused on "social return on investment," or the "good" offered by the sector. Summit senior partner Paul Rochette says it's tricky to measure slippery concepts like cost-avoidance, crime-avoidance and happiness, but it's a subset of statistics that's gaining ground. In fact, if initial questions on the UCCS survey produce enough interest, Rochette is hopeful that CNE, which serves all of southern Colorado, will launch another study focused on the topic.

"Economics is really about human behavior," Rochette says. "It's about trying to understand how people behave and what matters to them."

For now, Dave Somers, CNE executive director, says he hopes that this initial study will show that local nonprofits do matter — not just for the "good" they do, but for the money they bring into the recession-scarred city.

"What we intend is to help educate our civic and business leaders about the importance of our sector," he says, "to enhance our role in policy-making and shaping community goals."

stanley@csindy.com

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