COVID and the Count: Funders Confront New Challenges to the 2020 Census

Thursday, April 9, 2020

April 1 was Census Day, a reference date the Census Bureau uses to record who lived where for its once-a-decade count. Nonprofit organizers had a lot planned. They hoped that in-person events, including house parties, bus tours and independent door-to-door operations, would spur participation among hard-to-count populations and quell persistent fears that census data might be misused.

That was before COVID-19. Now that public gatherings and other face-to-face activities are out, census organizers are scrambling, like many of us, to accommodate the shift to remote work. The stakes are profound. A fair and accurate accounting of the U.S. population does a lot more than determine congressional apportionment, as important as that is. The federal government uses census data to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds, businesses use it to figure out where to set up shop, and researchers rely on it for their findings. Philanthropy uses data derived from the census to determine how and where to distribute grants and to gauge their effectiveness. 

While this once-in-a-century pandemic has thrown a wrench into census organizers’ plans, the news isn’t all bad. On the funding front, a dedicated cadre of philanthropies has been at work over the past five years to support a fair and accurate count. They’ve disbursed significant sums to build up outreach infrastructure for what was already set to be the first U.S. census conducted primarily online. COVID-19 threatens that work, but hasn’t derailed it. 

“It’s extraordinary how groups have pivoted to this new environment we’re in, and are still trying to get a fair and accurate count. That’s the story that needs to be told right now,” said Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation. Bass chairs a national collaborative of funders that has extended crucial support to nonprofits working to get out the count. As the grim saga of COVID-19 unfolds, those efforts will help determine whether we benefit from an accurate count for the next 10 years, or suffer from a warped one.

Best-Laid Plans

A worldwide pandemic may be hard to predict, but a decennial census is not. The U.S. Census Bureau began its preparations for this year’s count when the last one ended, and philanthropy has been on the task in an organized way since 2015. That’s when a group of democracy funders came together around a plan to support an accurate census in 2020. From those initial conversations grew an informal collaborative of dedicated census funders, often referred to as the Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup. 

The group includes frequent institutional funders of equity and inclusion work, like Annie E. Casey, Ford, Carnegie, JPB, OSF, Kresge, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Kellogg. Smaller funders with aligned priorities are also involved, starting with Bauman and including Joyce, Heising-Simons, Unbound Philanthropy and the Wallace A. Coulter Foundation. Also participating are a number of state-based funders like the James Irvine Foundation and the California Endowment. The Hewlett Foundation is involved, as well. 

The group’s action plan, developed along with advocacy groups active on the ground, embraces three goals: backing policy work to bolster census funding and implementation, bringing in new voices and organizations, and actually getting out the count this year, especially among populations likely to suffer an undercount. According to Geri Mannion, director of the Carnegie Corporation’s U.S. Democracy program, “If [the collaborative] hadn’t spent five years planning and raising funds to support a wide range of nonprofit advocates and allies such as business, faith and media—leading up to ‘get out the count’—it would be almost impossible to think about how to get this ship back on course, given the pandemic.”

But even before COVID-19 struck, census funders faced a host of challenges, many of them arising from post-2016 turmoil within the federal government itself. The most well-known is the infamous citizenship question, which the Justice Department slated to include in the 2020 Census questionnaire, claiming it would help government get a better handle on how many Americans are eligible to vote. Opponents, including former Census Bureau directors, civil rights advocates and voices from the world of philanthropy, argued that such a question would negatively impact the count by scaring away respondents.

In a win for the census funders, the Supreme Court ruled against the citizenship question last year. But the question’s ghost still haunts the count. “The citizenship question, even though it is no longer on the census form, left behind a lot of fear of filling out the form, especially in immigrant communities,” Mannion said. An Urban Institute study released earlier this year found that a whopping 70 percent of adults still believe the question will be on the census, highlighting the importance of accurate messaging—right now—about what the census covers and how it’s used.

There’s also the problem of overall funding for the 2020 Census, which has suffered setbacks under the Trump administration. Like election administration, implementing the census is both legally and practically off-limits to direct support from philanthropy. It’s a nation-spanning $12 billion enterprise, after all. But the funders involved in the Census Subgroup have approached the problem obliquely and with some success. “What philanthropy and state and local governments can do is make a huge impact by targeting in on particular populations to make sure they fill out the census,” Bass said. 

“It’s Never Been Easier”

But targeting hard-to-count populations isn’t a simple matter when COVID-19 has the population hunkered down. First and foremost, the Census Bureau will have to find a way to conduct its door-to-door operations safely. As of early April, we’re still within the self-response phase of the census, meaning people are filling out the census online, by phone or by mail. However, even though the Bureau has extended the self-response phase by two weeks, to August 14, enumerators must at some point visit non-respondents and certain hard-to-count populations in person. Currently, census field operations have been suspended through April 15. The bureau’s timeline has been thrown into a state of flux

Despite all that, “the message is, it’s never been easier to fill out the census,” Bass said. For those of us with secure internet access, the online option takes about five minutes, and over-the-phone options are available in 12 non-English languages (though COVID-19 has impacted census call centers). Around the middle of April, paper census forms will reach the mailboxes of those who haven’t already responded. Enumerators will begin going door-to-door in May—or maybe later, given the state of things. For those interested, this tool from the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for Urban Research is a handy way to keep track of each state’s self-response rate so far. 

It’s harder to gauge how COVID-19’s economic fallout will affect the count over the coming months. On one hand, people teetering on the edge of financial ruin might not spare the time to fill out the census. But more time at home also means more time to complete a quick questionnaire. Then there’s the question of enumerators themselves. Pre-COVID, the Bureau was actually having a hard time hiring personnel since so few people were out of work. That’s changed, now. But will people actually want to go out and canvass neighborhoods, even with the right protective gear?

However that shakes out, an accurate count will strengthen long-term recovery efforts. “Our challenge to ensure we reach people is more important than it has ever been before,” said Rebecca DeHart, CEO of the Georgia-based census organizing group Fair Count. “Communities across the nation are going to suffer from mass unemployment, a strain on the medical system and hospital infrastructure, and we will have a generation of children who will be out of school for months […] Simply put—the resources the 2020 Census will bring to communities will be more important than ever as we rebuild from this crisis.”

Going Digital

So how exactly are funders supporting their grantees as they tackle the challenge of getting out the count during a pandemic? First of all, what’s most important is an immediate shift to remote organizing. “Our work has had to dramatically pivot from tried-and-true person-to-person outreach to all digital, virtual, earned and paid media outreach,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund. 

Hector Sanchez Barba, who heads the civic engagement group Mi Familia Vota, said something similar: “We must be bold and build out an integrated digital organizing piece to meet the new reality we are in. In this new capacity, with the right levels of support, we could expand our digital presence to key states where Latino participation may be key, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.” 

Bass says the census funders have kept their eyes and ears open to what organizers require. “Funders are listening closely to the groups to understand their needs, and what are the best ways to shift from real-world organizing to virtual and digital,” he said. That might mean virtual town halls, ramped-up text messaging campaigns, and ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube or even Tiktok. Groups are brainstorming creative ways to reach people in quarantine, like census-themed parties conducted over Zoom, or installing Wi-Fi hotspots on buses to help people in hard-to-reach places get online. 

To effect a rapid shift to digital, many census funders are acting as their peers across the sector have done during COVID: offering grantees greater flexibility, holding listening sessions, increasing general operating support and rolling out rapid-response funds. “In general, there is an even greater need for collaboration, trust and transparency as organizations make adjustments now at the same time that they plan for an uncertain future,” said Jocelyn Bissonnette, director of the Funders Census Initiative at the Funders Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP). 

A working group of FCCP members, the Funders Census Initiative (FCI) is an important nexus in philanthropy’s effort to ensure a fair and accurate count. FCI works closely with the Census Subgroup, serving as a resource hub and conducting outreach to state and local funders. “We planned to convene national, state and community-based funders and philanthropy-serving organizations on a weekly basis during peak 2020 census operations, and those discussions have served as a useful place to share updates, generate questions, and help funders better understand effective strategies,” Bissonnette said. 

All this philanthropic coordination going into 2020 has proven useful. “For the 2020 decennial census, the philanthropic community organized relatively early, which has proven critical during this time of crisis,” said John C. Yang, who heads Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC. Along with NALEO and the Leadership Conference, Advancing Justice-AAJC heads Census Counts, a collaborative front of over 60 organizations working to get out the count. Census Counts plans to boost state and local organizers by developing messaging for text, phone and digital campaigns, by crafting ads local groups can brand as their own, and by expanding organizers’ digital toolbox through a “Census Digital University.” 

To support that field, funders in the Census Subgroup have raised around $85 million on the national level since 2015, and leveraged even more resources from the states. The national sum includes a Census Equity Fund (around $11 million) to support census outreach in states with high historically undercounted populations and limited philanthropic capacity, including Georgia and Florida. The hope there is to get matching commitments from local funders. Both the Census Equity Fund and the larger collaborative fund are managed by the New Venture Fund, a fiscal sponsorship vehicle with origins at Arabella Advisors. The New Venture Fund plays a significant infrastructural role in the world of progressive 501(c)(3) funding. 


Although existing coordination among census funders and advocates has been a plus during COVID-19, prospects are still far from sunny. “At our field trainings, we performed a variety of challenging role plays—a speaker cancels at an event, our bus gets a flat tire; we even role played that an event location got sucked into a sinkhole. But we never in a million years could have predicted we would be facing a global pandemic,” said Fair Count’s DeHart.

At the Democracy Funders Collaborative, Bass said, “we talked about this notion of triage, needing to take it each step at a time and take care of the worst situations. The immediate issue is the census, which is happening as we speak.”

The next priority is virus-proofing the November elections, another urgent need that has attracted its share of attention from democracy funders. “Even before the current COVID-19 crisis, we knew that the combination of the census and a national election meant that 2020 was going to present serious challenges and important opportunities for our grantees working on voting and civic engagement,” said Erika Wood, program officer for civic engagement and government at the Ford Foundation.

In both cases, COVID-19 has impelled organizers to go digital in a much bigger way than many planned. That, in turn, is shining a light on the digital divide between larger, well-heeled operations and scrappier local nonprofits.

As is true of most of the funders working to get out the vote this year, get-out-the-count funding tends to flow from liberal and progressive funders. Some conservative voices have criticized efforts to target hard-to-count populations as attempts to tilt the political field. It’s worth noting that “hard-to-count” populations aren’t limited to Democratic-leaning constituencies like Latino immigrants. The census often has difficulty counting rural Americans, low-income communities of all political stripes, and young children.

In the end, it all comes down to founding principles. The decennial census is enshrined in this nation’s constitution, along with the ideal that it should accurately assess who lives where. We take for granted communications technologies the framers would have found miraculous. Now, it’s just a matter of getting as many people as possible to use them.

Find More By

News type: