The 2020 Census as a Social Cause?

John SchoberCensus 2020, Cross-Sector Collaboration, Government

The idea of counting millions of people nationally as part of the 2020 census may not seem all that exciting, but this decade’s version will be far from boring, as politics will be a force and the results will be consequential in communities across the country. At first glance, the census appears to be simply a federal government effort with local support, but it is playing out much more like a nationwide network of locally-focused social causes, each with a mission to secure fair representation and funding for the community. The case could be made that these local census efforts are the quintessential social cause. Consider the following:

  • The work (executed via loose coalitions called Complete Count Committees) is to convince all community members to make the effort to be counted in the census, whether the community is a small town, a large city, or anything in between.
  • The local teams consist of mostly of volunteers, representing businesses, nonprofits, government entities, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and philanthropic organizations, who work with federal census workers on securing a fair and accurate count.
  • Undercounting can result in reduced government representation and federal funding support for communities, impacting the community as a whole, but especially vulnerable segments of society.
  • The human element is important, as fear and anxiety about the process will impact the outcomes.
  • State and local governments are providing more than $350M in financial support to ensure a fair and accurate count.
  • Philanthropic organizations are contributing $10M’s in funding as well.

These efforts highlight important trends in the social cause economy.

Use of Impact Metrics 

Local census groups have the luxury of very clear and relevant performance metrics (# of people counted vs # of people actually in the community) that correlate well to the mission, making it easier to create a focus in the group and to make decisions about activities that will deliver the most impact. 

Many social causes would love to have it this easy because measuring impact can be time-consuming, costly, and sometimes impossible. Despite these difficulties, leaders and funders of social causes recognize the value of measuring impact and are increasingly working toward developing clear and relevant metrics.

Leveraging Shared Interest 

Consumers, businesses, government, educators, faith-based organizations, charitable organizations, grassroots groups all will benefit from a fair and accurate count in their communities. Leaders of the Complete Count Committees leverage this shared interest in generating support for the work.  

The alignment of disparate groups can be helpful in broadening the scale or growing the momentum of a cause. Leaders of social causes are increasingly leveraging shared interest in advancing their missions by securing partnerships/coalitions within their own sector and outside of it. 

Managing Engagement 

Most groups are loose coalitions of part-time or volunteer team member that have not worked together previously on the cause, making it challenging to ensure that team members get plugged in easily and stay active. To keep the team working together effectively, leaders must avoid making assumptions about who is involved and to what degree, and instead actively work to ensure that team members are sufficiently engaged.  

Social causes, in general, have a similar challenge for the same reason, i.e. so many of the supporters of the cause are doing so on a part-time or volunteer basis. Leaders are increasingly realizing the importance of actively managing engagement, and are implementing engagement initiatives to get the most out of their base of supporters.

Using Data

Census groups are using data from their communities to develop and execute strategies for reaching community members. Datasets include commuting patterns, employment, geography, home sales, households, and others, and tools such as collaboration software and GIS software are used to manage it all.

The use of data in decision-making and strategy is growing in all parts of society, and social causes are no exception. As a result, social causes are increasingly incorporating technology into their work.  

Focusing on the Long-Term

The Census only happens once every decade, and the results will have implications over the next decade and beyond. This is used as a strong motivator not only for the supporters of the cause but also for citizens in getting them to participate. 

Taking the long view is not easy in our rapidly changing society. Leaders of social causes are increasingly realizing that short-term thinking has not delivered the desired results and are shifting to a long-term focus. 

The 2020 Census is not just about counting people..it is about securing resources and representation for communities. Local census efforts can provide valuable insights for making your social cause work better.

Best wishes to all Complete Count Committees!