A Call for Philanthropy to Help Meet Unprecedented Challenges Facing the 2020 Census

Wednesday, May 22, 2019
The United Philanthropy Forum logo, which features the first two letters of their name in black capital letters above 'Forum' in much larger blue letters, all to the right of a blue-green square, one quarter of which is in pieces.

In less than one year, the U.S. government will kick-off the 2020 Census. The U.S. Constitution requires our country to count the entire population of our country, and at the location where each person usually lives, every 10 years. Nonprofits, foundations and other community leaders rely on accurate census data to make decisions about services for children, seniors, veterans and other core populations; identify community and demographic trends that inform long-term plans and grants; and define other community needs.

Accurate census data are critical to the work of philanthropy and our partners. As noted in an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court to make the case for removing the untested citizenship question from the census: “Foundations, philanthropy-serving organizations and their partners and grantees regularly rely on decennial census data and other government data sources derived from decennial census data in identifying issues that need to be addressed, evaluating potential programs, setting strategic priorities and measuring progress.” United Philanthropy Forum signed on to the brief along with 29 foundations and philanthropy-serving organizations.

But despite the vital importance of the census to philanthropy and all sectors of our society, the census continues to face serious challenges as we approach its public launch on April 1, 2020: insufficient federal funding, resulting in canceled tests and scaled back preparations; technical challenges as the census moves to be primarily online for the first time ever; and growing community reluctance to share information with the government, to name a few.

To help overcome these challenges, United Philanthropy Forum has been working since 2016 with our network of 79 regional and national philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) to engage philanthropy in ensuring a fair and accurate census count in 2020. The effort has been funded by The Joyce Foundation and the Funders Census Initiative (FCI) of the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), a Forum member. Working closely with FCCP, the Forum has provided our members with census tools, messaging, information, financial resources and more. Activating the power of our network, PSOs have been engaging their philanthropy members on the census, advocating with local and state governments to provide adequate funding for census outreach and education, and supporting other efforts to ensure a fair and accurate census count.

As a result of this work, the Forum has leveraged an initial foundation investment of $310,000 to result in more than $150 million of additional philanthropic and state/local government support for the census. Our network has also coordinated an unprecedented level of advocacy by philanthropy on behalf of the census, including joint letters to the Commerce Department and the above-mentioned Supreme Court amicus brief regarding the citizenship question. Although philanthropy is engaged in the census like never before, more funding is needed over the next year if we are to have any chance of truly achieving a fair and accurate census.

Last week we received the welcome news that four prominent large foundations—Ford, JPB, Kellogg and Open Society foundations—have committed $20 million to the census. However, in an open letter they noted that an additional $10 million is needed to launch a massive and coordinated “get out the count” effort focused on the most hard-to-count communities, which is being coordinated by FCI.

I urge philanthropy to heed the call to support the national “get out the count” effort, particularly if you fund on the national level. This effort is fighting important legal battles, such as the removal of the citizenship question from the census. It is also targeting funding to specific hard-to-reach communities that have been severely uncounted in years past and are at even more at risk in 2020 due to heightened fears of sharing personal information with the government, an increased reliance on online systems for next year’s census count that will impact outreach to rural areas, and other critical barriers. To learn more about how you can support these national efforts, please contact Gary Bass, Executive Director of the Bauman Foundation.

If you’re a funder who is interested in supporting local census efforts, many of our regional PSO members are managing state and regional census equity funds, serving on local Complete Count Committees, advocating for state and local census funding and more. If you want to learn more about how philanthropy is engaging in census efforts in your state or region, and how you can help as a funder, please contact Matt Hennessy, the Forum’s Senior Manager of Public Policy, and he can direct you to the best resources.

No matter what or where you fund, the issues and communities you support will be impacted negatively if we don’t get the census count right in 2020. I call on everyone involved in philanthropy to help us get it right.

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO, United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer