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A High-Stakes Headcount: Philanthropy and the 2020 Census

By Caitlin Reilly | November 2017

We’re still several years out from 2020, but funders are already preparing for a census that experts believe will be unusually fraught by challenges like underfunding, cyber security threats, partisan sabotage and growing mistrust of government.

An unsuccessful census can have far-reaching consequences for both the public and private sectors. On the government side, census data informs how congressional districts are redrawn and determines where government funds go.

“This is at the heart of our democracy. This is one of the key levers, and if you get it wrong, then your democratic institutions are warped for the next decade,” said Gary Bass, an executive director at the Bauman Foundation. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, it shouldn’t matter, you want to get right.”

On the private side, businesses use the data to decide where to they should set up shop. Philanthropists use census-derived data to decide how to set goals, distribute grants and evaluate outcomes.

“When you ask a program officer to think about it for about 60 seconds, the light bulb goes off,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a senior advisor to the Funders Census Initiative. “If they’re interested in supporting education, they’re looking at data on educational outcomes, by income, by race and ethnicity, by where people live—urban, rural. All of that information, all of the data comes from the Census and the American Communities Survey, or other federal data that relies on a good census as a foundation for benchmarking.”

“It’s probably the most important dataset in the country that no one’s ever heard about. We all, every funder and every grantee, have probably used census data,” Bass said. He leads a separate funder coalition through the Democracy Funders Collaborative that’s marshalling support for 2020.

Bass’ and Lowenthal’s groups work closely. Lowenthal first got involved with funders interested in supporting the census in late 2008 to prepare for 2010. She was a consultant for the Funders Census Committee, housed by the Funders Committee of Civic Participation, which houses the initiative she works on now.  For the 2010 census, the committee raised an estimated $34 million in philanthropic support, Lowenthal said.

The initiative’s parent organization, FCCP, has a long history in the democracy space. Founded in 1983 by grantmakers interested in boosting voter registration, the FCCP embraces a network oriented toward equity and the enfranchisement of underrepresented communities. The full list of members is available here. Its chairs and co-chairs include some of the most well-known grantmakers in the democracy space, such as Geri Mannion of the Carnegie Corporation, and Michele Lord of NEO Philanthropy. It's currently co-chaired by Connie Malloy of the Irvine Foundation and Steve Cole-Schwartz of the Partnership Funds.

This time around, the Funders Census Initiative got started much earlier in the decade, back in 2013, when Lowenthal knew the Census Bureau would start its own planning and preparation. The initiative sees its role as engaging new funders and acting as an educational resource through webinars, conferences and fact sheets.

Bass’ group also got started early with a plan of action developed back in 2015. The collaborative includes funders and stakeholder groups that share the goal of a fair and accurate census in 2020, Bass said. Their plan of action includes policy issues that affect the census, like funding and questions that end up on the survey, reaching out to more voices in the private and public sectors, and getting out the count, especially among the hard-to-count populations.

The collaborative came about though the Democracy Funders Collaborative, which was looking for more areas to address, Bass said.

Bass says the collaborative includes about 15 to 20 organizations. The governance of the collaborative is overseen by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bauman Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Coulter Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the JPB Foundation, Open Society, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy. The Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation aren’t part of the governance, but are funding through the collaborative.

Census 2020: The Perfect Storm

But why should funders get involved? A key reason is that minorities, low-income people, children, especially children of color, immigrants nad mobile young people are disproportionately overlooked in census counts, while higher-income, white households tend to be over-counted. 

This has consequences, because redrawing congressional districts, allocating government program funds, and a range of nonprofit initiatives require local snapshots. “Mistakes don’t cancel each other out at the local level," Lowenthal said. "They compound each other, and they compound the inequalities that flow from that skewed picture. And we have to live with those results for the next 10 years.”

Bass and Lowenthal agree that getting an accurate count will be even more difficult this time around. “There’s a confluence of unprecedented factors, many outside the Census Bureau’s control, that threaten to create the perfect storm and thwart a good count,” Lowenthal said.

“You never want to say it’s more of a disaster, but I think what you could say is that the potential dangers are much clearer this cycle than ever before,” Bass said.

For starters, the federal funding is much lower than in the past. Typically, in the seventh year of the decade, census funding rises dramatically, but it didn’t in 2017, and is scheduled to stay about the same for 2018, Bass said. “We’re nowhere near where we were in 2010 or 2000, or even 1990,” he said.

That means the budget for communications will stay at about where it was for 2010, even though the challenges are much greater, Lowenthal said. Namely, 2020 will be the first high-tech census, which brings needed modernization, but also concerns, real and perceived, about cyber security, compounded by a political climate that has stoked a general mistrust in government. Further, new fears of deportation could mean that undocumented immigrants are less likely to respond to census requests than in the past. A larger context, here, is that, given how census data is used to apportion legislative seats, partisan officials may have incentives to sabotage the nation's headcount for political gain.

Get out the Count

Where does that leave grantmakers? Getting involved early was Lowenthal’s biggest takeaway from the last go-round. Funders can play a role by supporting national advocacy organizations that push for better policy around the census, like funding and selecting questions on the survey. Community-based organizations can work with local governments to identify hard-to-count households and act as trusted messengers within communities wary of the government.

As we get closer to the census, policy remains important, but funders should expand focus to get-out-the-count activities, Lowenthal said. At this point, “I would be looking ahead already to pushing grants out the door in 2018 to support initial planning for get-out-the-count campaigns, because those campaigns have to kick off in 2019 and build up speed in 2020,” she said.

On the federal level, the communications budget will likely go to a national campaign to convince people to respond on their own, Lowenthal said. “Where we think philanthropy really needs to step in on communications is helping to fund targeted outreach, targeted advertising and promotion to diverse communities, ethnic communities, lower-income communities and the like.”

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is doing just that. The foundation is already funding the Michigan Nonprofit Association for work on the census, but plans to expand to other states as 2020 draws nearer. Regina Bell, a Kellogg program officer, says communications is the big reason the foundation got involved so early. The foundation is working on messaging around the census and its importance for the association and its members to reach hard-to-count populations in Michigan.

The message can’t just be ‘fill out the form,’ Bell said. Organizations have to start earlier and make a case for why the census is important, and what people have to lose if they don’t respond. “If we’re not doing that work right now, if you wait, it becomes too late,” she said.

Kellogg, which is part of the funder collaborative Bass leads, worked with the nonprofit association in 2010, but the political climate has made finding community partners especially important this time around, Bell said.

One such group, the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, is already getting ready for 2020, but says its reach is limited by a lack of funding. “A lot of our partner organizations don’t really understand the importance of the census and how it goes into everything from funding to redistricting,” said Monica Sarmiento, the coalition’s executive director. “I think there’s a lack of urgency. People forget that preparing for 2020 doesn’t happen just in 2019.”

Right now, the coalition is working to identify communities in Virginia that were undercounted in 2010. The group shares the information it gathers with local and state government, which are in the middle of updating addresses for 2020. The process, called the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA), ensures that when the census is sent out, it goes to the right places.

“Community groups tend to have a good understanding of what’s happening in the neighborhood,” Bass said, which makes them invaluable allies for both the government and funders during the LUCA process.

The coalition is working to make sure the census gets to hard-to-count households, but doesn’t know what will happen if an immigration status question gets added, Sarmiento said. “That’s going to be very incredibly challenging, especially for the undocumented community in Virginia, which will be very fearful of submitting their information to the federal government for fear it will be used for deportation purposes.”

It’s likely that immigrants and their families won’t be the only communities deterred from responding by the political climate and President Trump’s rhetoric, Lowenthal says. Trump’s talk of the Muslim Ban and surveillance of Arab communities may dampen response from Arab Americans, she said. And strained relations between African American communities and law enforcement may also lead to undercounting.

The privacy of individual census data is protected by law, but advocacy organizations remain fearful, Lowenthal said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t know if we can trust this administration to follow the law.’”

It’s worth noting that there’s also been pushback against the census from conservative and libertarian circles, as well. Notably, back in 2010, then-Representative Michele Bachmann said she wouldn’t fill out the census beyond listing the number of people in her household. The difference this time around is that the political environment will make it harder to reach populations that already were undercounted.

Despite this, Bass is hopeful. Funders organized themselves much earlier this time around. They’ve already committed $13 million through the collaborative Bass leads.

“From a funder’s point of view, there’s probably no better circumstance than when you have something that is potentially a danger, and simultaneously, clear opportunities to make sure the danger is avoided,” Bass said. “The census represents that.”