Gary Bass: Census & Coronavirus

Friday, March 13, 2020

A funder memo with three suggestions for funders engaged in the census given the current Covid-19 situation. 

As if we haven’t faced enough challenges in our pursuit of a fair and accurate census… we now face the impact of the novel coronavirus.

This email provides three suggestions for funders engaged in the census given the current covid-19 situation.  We recognize that this situation is fluid: two weeks from now, the coronavirus could be more widespread or largely contained, changing our approach; we also might have a better sense on how households are responding to the mailings that ask them to fill out the census, also changing our next steps.

For right now, however, the impact of the coronavirus for state and local groups doing census outreach has been swift and significant. We are hearing about many community gatherings, house parties, church events, and door-to-door operations being cancelled. Companies and community organizations are telling employees to work from home; public schools, colleges and community centers are closing, so places where events were planned are no longer available.

Moreover, state and local governments are discouraging gatherings and other events that could support community transmission of the virus.  Libraries, churches and other agencies planning to make computers available have to think through how they make them safe – at least for those not themselves closing.

Even if these organizations were open, a growing number of households are under self-quarantines or are fearful of attending public gatherings. This is undermining the ability of organizations to provide encouragement, access to computers and broadband, and assistance in completing the forms. This is particularly a problem for households who are distrustful of government or do not speak English.

Those working on census outreach are quickly pivoting to non-contact approaches, including phone banks, text campaigns, videos, and ads.  Some organizations are well-positioned to make the transition; others are not.

The Census Bureau is closely monitoring the situation and we (funders and stakeholders) are in daily direct communication with them. The Bureau has already decided to invest in greater advertising right now. It is allowing its partnership specialists to work at home using the phone rather than to go out to meetings and events. It is reviewing its other special enumerations for group quarters like colleges and nursing homes, and counts of the homeless, and making other adjustments where appropriate.

In short, there are two phases to the census. The first is the mailings that began going out this week asking households to fill out the census.  This is the self-response phase.  The second phase is when the enumerators knock on household doors that have not responded during the self-response phase.  This Non-Response Follow Up (NRFU) operation, which starts in early May, could present significant problems if the covid-19 situation is not contained.

It is possible that enumerators – many of whom are older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus – may quit or be fearful of knocking on household doors. Those working on primary elections are already seeing this happen with canvassers. Similarly, those inside the households may fear opening their doors.

In light of what we know, here are three recommendations to funders engaged in the census:

  1. Revise grantee requirements. Many of your grantees stated in proposals that they would be hosting a certain number of events, house parties, or door knocks. They promised census pledges and more through these interactions.  And many promised a series of events on April 1, Census Day, which now must be suspended if they can’t be moved to virtual events.

We encourage you to contact your grantees to revisit these requirements and provide them with flexibility to adjust their outreach strategies and promises/commitments in light of the coronavirus.

Moreover, many funders are contacting grantees to reassure them that their safety is paramount amid the pandemic, and that flexibility to adjust their outreach strategies and promises/commitments is part of the commitment to keeping them safe. These funders are advising against extensive discussion or negotiation with grantees, allowing them to focus on shifting all of the organizations’ work, protecting their staff/volunteers, and caring for loved ones.

At the end of this email is an excellent example of a letter sent by Kiki Jamieson, the head of The Fund for New Jersey, to grantees in New Jersey that have been funded to do census outreach.  She emphasizes that “You will not be penalized for changing your plans and prioritizing safety. This is an emergency situation.”

  1. Emergency funding for census outreach.  As mentioned, some state and local groups are able to quickly pivot, and some aren’t.  But even for these groups that are able to pivot, the costs may be higher and there will be greater challenges in finding ways to reach historically hard-to-count communities. A few funders have mentioned the idea of holding back originally committed funding until a later date, which we think would exacerbate the problem.

Instead, once again, funders are being asked to step up in light of this emergency. I strongly encourage you to dig deep with additional funding to support groups doing outreach in your area.  Some funders, such as in the San Francisco Bay Area, have established a census rapid-response fund that provides additional funding in light of covid-19.

Or you can provide additional support to the pooled fund at New Venture Fund. At the national level, we’re working as fast as possible to get an emergency plan in place, but preliminary guesstimates are that we’ll need to raise another $5 million to address the items that follow.

We are exploring three types of services to help state and community groups in doing outreach to historically hard-to-count communities.  These three approaches are being done in close collaboration with the Census Counts campaign, which is co-chaired by The Leadership Conference, NALEO, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

  • Phone banking, texting services, tele-townhall type activities.  We have supported a texting campaign and are using a company that has access to all telephone numbers in the country, which combined with other datasets can help us target potentially hard-to-count populations.  We have begun to use this service in partnership with a state group in each of Florida, Texas and Virginia to help them augment their SMS campaign. With more funding, we can expand the service to work with state groups in more locations as well as add in voice messaging (to complement the text messaging).  We can also work with state and local groups or governments to support tele-townhall type events, inviting historically hard-to-count audiences to the virtual events.

These services are not cheap, but they are effective.  Providing it from the national end means we can take the working model we have in place for the SMS campaign and expand it quickly in partnering with state and local groups. Given the limits created by covid-19, this also may be one of the more prudent paths in reaching hard-to-count populations.

We have not yet worked up cost estimates, but we expect this to cost around $3 million or more depending on how much we expand these services.

  • Census Digital U.  We have funded an operation we call Census Digital U to build the capacity of groups doing census outreach to hard-to-count populations.  This includes a “campaign in a box” of digital tools/materials, webinars, a help desk, and more.  (In 2019, we funded several pilots to experiment with digital organizing for census outreach, which means we have solid information to help groups know what works and doesn’t.)  With added funding, we can more aggressively promote Census Digital U tools/help to state and community groups through technical assistance and recommendations on how to pivot to digital outreach.
  • Ads. Ads – both digital and otherwise – are even more important in reaching historically hard-to-count populations, now that face-to-face interactions are suspended.  The funder collaborative has already supported a significant ad campaign in multiple languages and targeting multiple audiences.  Businesses are helping with ads on their windows and bags; local governments are actively promoting the census on mailings they send to residents, including on bills and informational documents. 

With additional funding, we can double-down on our ad strategy targeting hard-to-count audiences.  Given we already have the infrastructure in place, we can do this quickly and in a way that the ads are branded by the state and local groups already providing the outreach leadership. 

  1. Provide guidance to your grantees.  Many organizations are confused about how to operate in this new environment, particularly in doing their part to increase “social distancing.” The New York Times and public health officials have consistently recommended three ways to slow the spread of covid-19:
  • Work from home;
  • Move meetings to phone or video; and
  • Don’t travel.

You may want to consider providing helpful materials to your grantees as they make tough decisions about how to operate. 

More information about the coronavirus is at CDC and at a CDC page for employers. And more information about census operations in light of covid-19 is available through a detailed memo available from Jocelyn Bissonnette ([email protected] at the Funders Census Initiative.

I’m sorry that I’ve had to present this lengthy email at this late date in the census cycle.  But I do believe we have an emergency situation.  Thanks for any help you can provide.


Dear Census partners:

The Census is here! Thank you all for your commitment and your work to support a complete count of New Jersey residents in Census 2020. We applaud the plans you made and have supported you with grants.

Now we are all facing the threats of Covid -19 and are taking precautions to keep our communities safe. By necessity, many of your census strategies will need to change and we support you doing so. For example:

  • outreach strategies will change – reducing in-person connections and relying more on digital (texting) and publicity via social media
  • large events will be cancelled – including those planned for April 1
  • canvassing plans will change – prioritizing the health of your teams and communities
  • census kiosks will implement disinfecting and distancing protocols
  • videos will take the place of in-person education – the Census Bureau has many available here
  • staff may work from home or need to take paid leave

We recognize that the plans you described in your grant application are changing and we support you in making the programmatic and operational changes necessary for the health and well-being of your staff and the communities you serve. You will not be penalized for changing your plans and prioritizing safety. This is an emergency situation.

As we have said before, we are all in this together: to support a complete count in census 2020 and to support the communities of New Jersey. If you have ideas for what else we can do, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. We want to help.

Thanks very much and let’s keep doing our best (under the circumstances) to help every resident of New Jersey be counted!


Kiki Jamieson (she/her)

President, The Fund for New Jersey