By Terri Ann Lowenthal, Funders Census Initiative Consultant

When FCCP began organizing civic engagement funders in support of a fair and accurate census, the start of the 2010 Census was a mere 18 months away. Early Local Census Offices, managed by 12 Regional Census Centers, were already open, to oversee pre-census address canvassing in communities across the country. State and local governments were scouring their databases to help update the address lists and digital maps. The Census Bureau had conducted a full-blown Census Dress Rehearsal in two sites, and submitted the final questionnaire to Congress, as required by law.

After funder meetings in the summer and early fall of 2008, one of which included national nonprofits, FCCP launched the Funders Census Initiative (FCI) in January 2009, with financial support from the Hagedorn Foundation. By then, final preparations for the 2010 Census were underway; for funders and grantees committed to increasing participation in “hard to count” (HTC) communities, there was no time to lose.

The FCI ultimately was an unprecedented and successful collaborative effort to mobilize philanthropy in support of the decennial census. Foundations made or helped leverage more than $33 million in grants to nonprofits anxious to boost census response rates among HTC populations, including people of color, low-income households, young children, immigrants, and refugees.

A series of evaluation reports, issued in March 2011, documents the tireless efforts of funders, FCCP staff, and consultants to empower national, state, and grassroots organizations as trusted voices in underserved communities during the census. Now, with four years to go until the 2020 Census, one conclusion from that assessment is especially noteworthy:

In hindsight, foundations involved in FCI universally agreed that an earlier start to their activities would have yielded even greater success in positively influencing participation rates in historically undercounted communities.

FCCP Funders Census Initiative, “Looking To The Future: A Plan to Engage the Philanthropic Community in Census 2020 and Leverage the Benefits of Census 2010,” March 2011.

FCCP took this forward-looking advice to heart. Last year, it began discussions with member foundations eager to build on the success of the 2010 effort and mobilize a broader group of funders in support of the 2020 Census. At its convening in October 2015, FCCP formally launched the Funders Census Initiative 2020 and a Census Working Group. The new initiative will give funders the early start they need to develop grantmaking strategies, build collaborative funding networks, educate themselves and prospective grantees on key 2020 Census operations, identify geographic areas and population groups for targeted census campaigns, commission shared information resources (such as HTC maps and toolkits for new census funders), draft RFPs, and award grants — all in a timely way.

The Census Bureau, too, has accelerated its planning schedule for the 2020 count. Research and testing began early in the decade, culminating in release last fall of a preliminary Operational Plan that incorporates sweeping design changes. The next census will leverage technology to collect and process data and manage field operations, and tap existing government records and commercial databases to lower the cost of building an address list and following up with unresponsive households. These significant reforms will require both funders and grantees to consider new strategies, messaging, and avenues for reaching HTC population groups, as the nation grows more ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse.

Building on its experience with the 2010 Census, FCCP will provide a strong framework for sharing information and expertise, providing technical assistance to funders and grantees, and facilitating collective philanthropic involvement in the 2020 Census. Funders will set the project’s direction through a FCI 2020 Leadership Team, while the Census Working Group, backed by FCCP staff and consultants, as well as outside experts, will be on the leading edge of philanthropy’s commitment to a successful 2020 enumeration.

The preliminary plan of action for 2016 envisions a range of activities designed to position funders for coalition building and initial grantmaking in 2017:

  • Begin bi-monthly Leadership Team meetings, with more frequent meetings possible in subsequent years as the pace of census preparations and grantmaking activities picks up;
  • Begin outreach to the broader philanthropic community through webinars hosted in conjunction with other affinity groups (e.g. Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees; Neighborhood Funders Group);
  • Host virtual or in-person meeting(s) with national and regional nonprofits at the forefront of census policy debates and public education campaigns, to discuss community needs and concerns;
  • Establish a formal relationship with the U.S. Census Bureau, through meetings with the Census Director and other senior officials, to encourage ongoing dialogue about census challenges and to position the FCI 2020 as a liaison between philanthropy, its grantees, and the Bureau; and
  • Begin preparation and distribution of written materials (e.g. fact sheets; memos) on key census operations, policy decisions, and issues, to inform funder strategies and grantee proposals.

The FCI 2020 effort will be challenging and require a steady commitment on the part of all participants. But the goal is clear, and fundamental to the collective mission of FCCP members: a truly representative democracy that empowers all Americans through the political process requires a decennial census that counts every community accurately and fairly.