Census, COVID-19, and the Need for Hyper Change

Posted in News Story

By Gary D. Bass, Ph.D.

March 17, 2020

Gary Bass is executive director of the Bauman Foundation and chair of a national census funder collaborative promoting a fair and accurate census. He is also an affiliated professor with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and part of the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership faculty.

As if there haven’t been enough challenges in pursuing a fair and accurate census… we now face the impact of the novel coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the ability to reach historically undercounted populations. An inaccurate count will distort our democracy for the next decade by altering political representation, federal funding, future research findings, and the way power is generally handled. In short: a lot is at stake.

Every ten years, the U.S. Constitution requires a count of everyone. It is the largest non-military mobilization in this country, possibly in the world. Every census cycle faces significant hurdles to get to a fair and accurate count, particularly for people of color, low-income residents, rural residents, and young children. With COVID-19, reaching these groups will be even more difficult as face-to-face mobilization strategies are being replaced with digital outreach.

For leaders of nonprofit organizations, this article provides links to resources that you can share with your clients. It also explains the history of the census and what the nonprofit and philanthropic communities have done so far to mobilize for Census 2020.

Census Resources You Can Share

It is important to share with nonprofits that there are three ways to respond to the 2020 Census: online, on the phone, or by returning the paper questionnaire (when one is included). More information can be found on: https://2020census.gov/.

  • Individuals can respond to the census over the phone with the Census Bureau in 13 non-English languages.
  • For individuals who are concerned about contacting the Census Bureau directly, there are also census hotlines held by civil rights groups that can answer questions in various languages.
  • Paper census forms will be sent to all households that have not completed it by mid-April.

You can also help by sharing the message about the importance of completing the census. Messaging tools are provided by the Census Bureau as well as the Census Counts campaign.  A digital “help desk” is also available for those groups transitioning to digital outreach for the census.

Challenges this Decennial Census Already Faced

COVID-19 is not the first challenge that the 2020 census faced. Many immigrants and families with immigrants are fearful of interacting with the government today. There are many reports of undocumented people and people of color not utilizing community health services, afterschool programs and many other social services offered by the government. Many believe this is because they do not want to be on any government list, fearful of being deported or otherwise targeted. 

Despite assurances that the census cannot be used to deport or target people, many still fear that their census information will be shared. Based on an extensive survey, Urban Institute reported, “Compared with nonimmigrant families, adults in immigrant families were more likely to be extremely or very concerned that the Census Bureau would not keep answers confidential or that answers would be shared with other government agencies…” In fact, 32 percent of adults think it is extremely or very likely that answers to the census will be used to find people living in the US without documentation. Another third of respondents think it is somewhat likely, despite federal laws preventing this from occurring. The percentage is much higher among immigrants and noncitizens.

Moreover, just as the census was about to start, the Trump administration deployed Border Patrol elite tactical agents to sanctuary cities to help ICE catch illegal immigrants. At the same time, trust in government is near its lowest levels, particularly for some communities of color. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, roughly one-third of survey respondents said lack of trust in government is a major reason they likely won’t fill out the census.

These challenges, and others, paled in comparison to the decision by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Even the Census Bureau’s own research noted that the question would have negative implications for data quality and response rates, particularly for people of color and immigrant families. The Bureau also found the question would likely reduce census responses among households with at least one noncitizen by at least 8 percentage points or an estimated 9 million people. Despite the Supreme Court decision in June 2019 that prohibited the administration from putting the citizenship question on the decennial census survey, new research shows that many still think the question is on the survey. An Urban Institute study, released in February, found nearly 70 percent of adults thought the question would be on the survey. A Pew Research survey also from February found 83 percent of respondents thought it would be on the survey. And a NALEO Education Fund survey found roughly half of Latinos surveyed thought the question was on the survey.

The Nonprofit Sector Responds

In 2015, funders and nonprofit census leaders developed a collaborative plan to pursue a fair and accurate census. The plan had three parts: (a) pursue policy efforts to make the census fair; (b) encourage new players to engage in the census; and (c) implement an outreach effort to encourage historically undercounted populations to fill out the census (called Get Out the Count (GOTC)). More than $85 million has been raised at the national level and millions more within states to implement this plan. 

Funding was made available on the policy front to advocate for adequate funding for the census, for working with the Census Bureau on implementation policies (including the implications for a largely online census), for opposing the citizenship question, and much more.  This census funder collaborative also supported research that produced reports on the distribution of federal funds based on the census), a book and reports on undercounts, and an interactive map on hard-to-count areas in the country.

Support has also been provided to engage faith-based groups, organizations representing local governments, businesses, and many other constituencies.

Most of the funding, however, went to the GOTC efforts led by local, state and national nonprofits—trusted messengers—to reach the hardest to count and encourage them to fill out the census. More than 20 national organizations were funded to serve as hubs in their respective communities of interest, providing messaging research, materials, technical assistance, and other supports. More than 60 organizations were supported in 26 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia to develop outreach plans targeting potentially hard-to-count populations.  Funders in at least another 10 states supported robust GOTC campaigns.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, groups leading the GOTC efforts have been doing door-to-door canvassing to explain the importance of the census and getting people to commit to “census pledges” to fill out the census. These efforts have been complemented with a host of events, house parties, and other person-to-person interactions. Many are working through houses of worships, creating a team of volunteers to encourage people to fill out the census. Numerous “Census Sundays” have been planned to make filling out the census a congregational activity with people bringing tablets and laptops to church.

The GOTC plans differ from state to state, some focused on reaching households with young children (a population highly undercounted) or after considered data analysis other target audiences. Strategies also differed based on geographies, funding, and other factors. One common element: they all had events planned for April 1, which is the day the census is officially acknowledged, even though it started earlier. It is safe to say, groups across the country have been doing a lot and still have a lot planned. 

COVID-19 and the Census

The impact of the novel coronavirus for groups doing GOTC has been swift and devastating. Many community gatherings, house parties, church events, and door-to-door operations are being cancelled. Companies and community organizations are telling employees to work from home. Public schools, colleges, and community centers are closing, so the places where these events were originally planned are no longer available.

Moreover, state and local governments are discouraging gatherings and other events that could support community transmission of the virus. The nonprofit sector is trying to do its part in promoting “social distancing,” which has largely been defined as working from home, moving meetings to phone or video, and no travel.

Many agencies, such as libraries and churches, were planning to make computers available for people to fill their census. Even if libraries, churches and other agencies are open, they are struggling with how to make keyboards and tablet screens safe to touch.

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 the government or do not speak English.

The Census Bureau is closely monitoring the situation. 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.

The COVID-19 situation is quite fluid. While health officials continue to say we should be prepared for things to get worse before they get better, the implications for the census could vastly change even within two weeks – for better or for worse.

To understand the implications for the census, it is important to understand the two phases of the census. The first phase is the mailings that began arriving on March 12 asking households to fill out the census. This is the self-response phase – and the time during which the nonprofit outreach efforts are most important and affected by the coronavirus. Over the past few months, nonprofits have been trying to persuade people to complete the census, explaining to them why the census is important. Now they are moving into action mode, telling people to fill out the census as soon as possible. Much of this involves person-to-person contact.

The second phase is when the Census Bureau 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 at higher risk for the coronavirus – may quit or be fearful of knocking on household doors. Those working on primary elections are already seeing this happen with poll workers and canvassers. Similarly, those inside the households may fear opening their doors. This NRFU phase will most affect the Census Bureau.  Some have already begun talking about extending this operation beyond the end of July, which is the current deadline for ending the census.

Nonprofit Hyper Change

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 pivot to digital isn’t as dramatic for some of the census operations that have already been integrating digital organizing concepts into their overall census outreach plans. Those already digitally savvy are experimenting with airdropping and geofencing to target information in ways that are similar to doing face-to-face interactions. Fair Count in Georgia is shifting their in-person meetings to phone and video 1:1s, and are sending thousands of texts and phone banking targeted communities. The head of Fair Count, Rebecca DeHart, said they are calling on their volunteers “to submit pre-written LTEs [Letters to the Editor], share emails with their personal networks, do more on social media, bring bulletins to churches, and more.”

Groups like Mi Familia Vota and CASA say the outbreak will have a large impact on all their field operations, including for the 2020 census, voter registration, voter education, GOTV, citizenship, and all of their trainings and events. (A number of organizations that are doing voter canvassing are only facing a similar situation: a drop off in volunteers and restrictions on door-to-door operations.) Many of these groups are responding quickly and decisively to implement alternative approaches. For example, Mi Familia Vota has a multi-part plan for changing how they operate. Some of this relies on partnerships with Univision, Telemundo and MTV for

televised town halls (with no physical audiences), phone banks on TV shows asking people to call in to ask questions about Census, and a heavier emphasis on social media platforms.

Many groups are trying to better understand how to use digital tools to expand relational organizing and engage people via email, text, phone and key social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the emerging Tik Tok.

At the national level, the census funders have already acted by asking funders across the country to revise their grantee requirements by providing flexibility to groups doing census outreach to historically undercounted communities so they can adjust their promised commitments in light of the novel coronavirus. There was also a call for emergency funding to support the pivot that groups locally will need to make.

At the national level, a plan is coming together to help those groups at the state and local level. The plan is being developed by a census funder collaborative and the Census Counts campaign, which is co-chaired by The Leadership Conference, NALEO Educational Fund, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. It has three parts:

  1. Provide support for phone banking, texting services, tele-townhall type activities.  The idea is to create the infrastructure for such services that state and local groups can use. One of the most challenging elements of census outreach is developing a target list of likely hard-to-count populations. The national efforts can help simplify that and allow state and local groups to brand the messages as coming from them. Given the limits created by COVID-19, this also may be one of the more prudent paths in reaching hard-to-count populations.
  2. Census Digital U.  A Census Digital U was created towards the end of 2019 to build the capacity of groups doing census outreach to historically undercounted populations. This includes a “campaign in a box” of digital tools/materials, webinars, a help desk, and more. The idea would be to expand these services to 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.
  3. 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. There were already ads being planned to complement those being done by the Census Bureau, primarily filling gaps left by the Bureau in reaching hard-to-count audiences in multiple languages. The idea is to double-down on the ad strategy targeting hard-to-count audiences in a way that the ads are branded by the state and local groups already providing outreach leadership.


Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges facing census outreach to historically undercounted communities may rapidly change. However, at this moment, there is a crisis. Remarkably, many in the nonprofit sector are rapidly and skillfully pivoting to digital or virtual strategies. Regardless of how this plays out for the census, it is reminder that organizing today requires a combination of offline and online strategies. Digital can no longer be considered a separate component within nonprofits. It must be integrated into all facets of a nonprofit’s activities, particularly in interacting with the community.

As trusted messengers, we hope that you will help share the census resources with your clients and encourage them to participate. An undercount in the 2020 Census can seriously impact the services and funding that are provided to the communities you serve. 

  1. If you are an organization working on census outreach to hard-to-count audiences and have digital skills and experiences with census outreach, we can use your help. Feel free to contact this author (baumanfoundation@baumanfoundation.org (new window)) if you have ideas for digital organizing practices that should be shared and scaled or if you are able to volunteer your time to connect with other groups, lead online learning opportunities, and share your experiences more broadly. This author will connect you with a growing group of digital organizers.
  2. If you are a funder, you can get updated information about COVID-19 and the census from the Funders Census Initiative. FCI has an email list and hosts webinars on the latest information for funders. This author chairs a national census funder collaborative and we rely on FCI as a key dissemination channel to funders.
  3. If you are an organization interested in learning more about how to pivot to using virtual and digital tools for census outreach, you can email a note to: census@newlcs.com (new window). Lim Consulting Services has been hired to support a Census Digital U and will be announcing webinars and other means for helping organizations skill up.

Additional articles in this series, Leading in Times of Hyper Change, can be found on our website, Facebook and Twitter.

Current articles in the series include: