Philanthropy’s Success with Census Needs to Continue

Dr. Gary Bass & Angela Cheng

When funders gathered in 2015 to talk about ways to promote a fair and accurate 2020 census, none of us could have imagined perhaps the most fraught decennial census cycle in American history. For six years, a small group of funders working together nationally as the Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup managed a pooled fund and sought to align funding with other foundations.

The philanthropic community successfully designed and implemented – with numerous nonprofit partners – an unprecedented campaign to ensure that people of color, low-income populations and other historically undercounted communities were properly counted. We won’t know complete results until the Census Bureau releases detailed data over the next year, yet it’s clear that if hundreds of foundations across the country had not joined together in this campaign, census participation would have been far lower.

We’re proud of our accomplishments and realize the importance of continuing this work. We’re glad to share lessons from this collaboration as well as how we plan to carry these lessons forward in planning for the 2030 Census.

More than $117 million was raised at the national level, and millions more within states as funders of all sizes with a wide range of priorities saw the direct connection between an accurate census count and achieving their mission. Collectively, funders at the national level supported more than 260 grantee organizations engaged in litigation, advocacy, outreach, and other activities. Meanwhile, funders coordinated at the regional, state, and local levels, forming collaboratives of their own and supporting even more organizations aimed at ensuring an accurate census.

Sue Van, president and CEO of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, called it a “philanthropic tour de force,” echoing the feelings of funders across the country.

The census is central to our democracy, determining how many congressional representatives are appointed per state and how state and local district boundaries are drawn. More than $1.5 trillion in federal funding is driven by the census, making it central to the mission of funders who care about children, healthcare, environment, economic development, and dozens of other priorities.

“When you are talking about good government and building a democracy that works for everybody, census is at the heart of everything else,” said Allan Oliver, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation said. “And here in a state with one of the highest rates of undercounting in the country, that’s a message people responded to.”

The work of dedicated local, state, and national organizations – supported by funders – made a significant difference. This network of partners won billions in federal and state government appropriations toward an accurate count. We defeated a divisive plan to add a citizenship question that stoked fear and would have reduced census participation in immigrant communities. We coordinated campaigns across the nation, mobilizing historically undercounted communities to stand up and be counted. An independent evaluation noted that the campaign was transformational, leaving behind a blueprint for state and local groups to either strengthen old or build new skills and capacities. Many of those groups have already gotten involved in other civic engagement issues.

From the start, the census campaign was designed to give equal voice to funders and stakeholder groups. For example, our Plan of Action, developed in 2015, was shaped by both funders and grantees, and implementation was modified based on feedback from those engaged in the effort. While the grantmaker-grantee power imbalance was not erased, it was acknowledged and attempts were made to address the issue.

“It was a large, networked effort that brought different perspectives to the table, enabled all of us to think creatively, and really set out to make a difference in protecting one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy,” said Geri Mannion, a program director at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Here are five lessons from the census experience that may apply to other philanthropic endeavors:

  1. Have a clear plan and message that both funders and grantees support. For the census campaign: the plan was developed early in the census cycle, was simple to understand, and had a role for everyone.
  2. Build coordination and alignment among funders and grantees. The census experience taught us that funders can use their clout beyond grantmaking to help achieve shared goals, including assisting with issues of policy, fundraising, communications, and convening. Most importantly, funders need to offer flexible support and resources so groups can strengthen their relationships with others. That is the heart of building “infrastructure,” and this takes time to develop.
  3. Establish a transparent decision-making structure. The census campaign had a steering committee of roughly 15 foundations that shaped the direction of funder efforts, including use of the pooled fund. Two key points: first, all funders need to be included and treated equally, regardless of their size; second, funders must be transparent with grantees on grantmaking priorities, and where possible, inclusive in setting such priorities.
  4. Support outreach and education efforts within the philanthropic sector from the start. We relied on the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation and United Philanthropy Forum to distribute census information and provide their members and others technical support on how to engage. With inevitable staff turnover in philanthropy, outreach and education is an ongoing need.
  5. Prepare to be flexible. External events can lay waste to the best laid plans. Funders need to respond quickly to changing circumstances. For the census campaign, the pooled fund gave us a means to adapt grantmaking plans quickly. The aligned funding model gave donors the flexibility to give directly to grantees, to have their funding pooled, or to engage in both.

Next Steps

In a recent survey of census funders, nine in ten funders said the census collaborative should continue. That fact is mirrored by similar comments from local, state, and national nonprofits around the country. Many funders and nonprofits highlighted the value of institutionalizing engagement in the census as a sustained priority, rather than needing to relaunch the effort each decade. Moreover, some noted that rebuilding these communications channels and relationships from scratch in 2025 would be challenging and quite likely more costly than maintaining modest annual investment during interim years. Furthermore, many key policy decisions about the next decennial census will be made within the next one to three years, so sustained involvement is vital.

Accordingly, we have launched the Census Equity Initiative (CEI), which provides a ramp that ratchets upward as we get closer to 2030. The current plan, vetted by funders and stakeholders, takes us through 2024, with a focus on addressing pressing issues concerning 2020 census data quality as well as properly counting historically undercounted populations in the 2030 census and related surveys. The CEI’s two main components are: (a) addressing census policy and operations, and (b) sustaining collaboration and aligned action.

We welcome additional funders to get involved in the CEI. It will again take a broad and diverse partnership to ensure an accurate count, which is crucial for equitable representation at all levels of government and helps allocate fair resources to communities. If you’re interested in joining this growing collaboration, please let us know.

Dr. Gary Bass is executive director emeritus and consultant to the Bauman Foundation, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and chair of the census funder collaborative described in this post. You can reach him at gbass[at]baumanfoundation.org.

Angela Cheng is senior program officer at The JPB Foundation. She served on the steering committee for the census funder collaborative and was the chair of the evaluation subcommittee.

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