What Your Nonprofit Can Do Now to Support a Complete Census 2020 Count

With the 2020 census less than a year away, there is heightened attention to just what it will mean for policy and advocacy in communities across the country. That’s because the decennial census—the official population count of the United States—has far-reaching consequences. The federal government uses the data to determine the apportionment of congressional representation, businesses use it to make important investment decisions, and, importantly for nonprofits, the census shapes how billions of federal dollars are allocated to states. For instance, census data is used to allocate funds to programs ranging from the Federal Aid Highway Program to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

For these reasons, it is imperative that the 2020 census count is fair, accurate, and inclusive. 501(c)(3)s will be important players in this process. Not only do they have a role in advocating for a complete count of populations that — sadly — are often undercounted, but they themselves stand to lose out on federal funding they need to meet community needs if their area’s population is undercounted.

The good news is that 501(c)(3)s can safely participate in census advocacy. When doing so, however, organizations should be aware of which types of census advocacy activities may count as lobbying. Public charities must count their lobbying toward their IRS lobbying limit. And while private foundations are effectively prohibited from lobbying, there are many non-lobbying avenues for census advocacy available to private foundations and other nonprofits.

Some nonprofits may be concerned about the additional controversy surrounding the census this year, because the Trump Administration has proposed that a citizenship question be added in 2020. There is ongoing litigation challenging this proposal and the Supreme Court is set to rule on it, but regardless of whether a citizenship question is included, 501(c)(3)s need to support a full count of people of color, American Indian and Alaska Natives, immigrants, low-income individuals, and other marginalized communities. 501(c)(3)s that serve these constituencies are especially critical in communicating with them about the importance of participating in the census to ensure all are counted in 2020.

Nonprofits can get involved in census advocacy by advocating for adequate funds for census outreach at the federal, state, and local level, calling for the formation of or participating in complete count committees, and joining census working groups. Finally, nonprofits can participate in census outreach themselves to support the full count of their communities. Several of these options are described below.

Advocate for Increased Funding for Census Outreach at the Federal and State Levels

Many community members may be more likely to respond to the census if they hear

about why it is safe and important for them to respond. This means that adequate funds must be allocated for census outreach, which may include everything from advertising to door-to-door outreach by census workers and community organizations. 501(c)(3)s and private foundations advocating for accurate counts may want increased funding in the federal and/or state budgets for census outreach.

At the federal level, the House Appropriations Committee approved $8.45 billion for the Census Bureau in its fiscal 2020 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill on May 22. This is significantly higher than the nearly $6.2 billion proposed by the White House earlier this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release its draft bill which will include census funding.

While the 2020 census is a federal undertaking, states have appropriated millions of dollars in state funds to aid in a successful and equitable count.

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed $54 million in this year’s budget for census outreach, on top of the $100 million that has already been allocated. Advocates are working to ensure that an additional $30 million is allocated, with significant resources for community-based organizations to do outreach in hard-to-count regions. The California Legislature has also created two committees to address issues related to the 2020 census. The California Senate has created a Select Committee on 2020 United States Census and the California Assembly a Select Committee on the Census. These committees provide a venue for community-based organizations and foundations to voice their concerns and positions on census issues.
  • Maryland has allocated $5 million in grants to local governments and nonprofits to support an accurate count. Other states have also allocated funds to census outreach, including Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Georgia.

Because budgets are legislative items, when nonprofits advocate for specific budget allocations, they are likely to be engaging in lobbying as it is defined under IRS rules. Communicating with legislative committees about specific census related legislation to be addressed by the legislature, such as specific budget line items, is also likely to be considered lobbying under IRS rules.

501(c)(3) public charities, but not private foundations, may lobby to impact the budget. Like all lobbying, this activity must be tracked and reported accordingly, and remain within applicable limits.

Advocate for Change Through Complete Count Committees

State legislatures and governors have the power to encourage an accurate and inclusive census by creating “complete count” committees or commissions. These committees bring together individuals, civic organizations, private foundations, nonprofits, faith-based groups, and others to shape census policy.

Six states—Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—have passed legislation either establishing a complete count committee/commission or requesting the governor to create such a body. Governors in eighteen states have issued executive orders creating state-level complete count committees for the 2020 census.

  • For example, former California Governor Jerry Brown created the California Complete Count Committee to develop, recommend, and assist in the administration of census outreach strategy for the 2020 census. This includes the establishment of outreach programs, partnerships with nonprofit organizations, the appointment of working groups, and the participation of experts and practitioners. The California Complete Count Committee will hold regional conventions of local governments, nonprofit organizations, community resource centers, and other census stakeholders. These conventions will help form partnerships, begin strategizing an effective outreach strategy, and provide 501(c)(3)s with the opportunity to shape census outreach in California. Click here for a list of upcoming committee meetings.

Local jurisdictions can also create complete count committees to address their own unique challenges. For example, during the 2010 census, the complete count committee of Anchorage, Alaska brought together faith-based organizations, Alaska Native organizations, and social service groups to ensure effective outreach to traditionally hard-to-count populations in Anchorage.

Your 501(c)(3) may have many different ideas it wants to discuss with complete count committees. The question of whether such advocacy would constitute lobbying would depend on whether you are expressing a view about specific legislation – such as a specific state budget allocation. Since the committee is composed of government officials, communicating with them about specific legislation would be lobbying even though they are not the legislators that vote on the legislation. This is because, as a governmental body, they may participate in the formulation of legislation by giving their opinion to the legislature. However, communicating with them about issues that don’t have to be voted on by the legislature, such as the details of outreach plans, would not be considered lobbying under IRS rules, since those plans are not legislative in nature.

Join Census Working Groups

Nonprofits and foundations all across the country recognize the need to support the 2020 census, advocate for positive census policy changes, and ensure an accurate count.

Joining other nonprofits and foundations in working groups and initiatives is one effective method of spearheading census advocacy. Here are some examples of websites where you can learn more and get engaged:

Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation’s Funders Census Initiative 2020

United Philanthropy Forum Census 2020 Initiative

California’s Census Policy Advocacy Network

Do Census Outreach in Your Community – Funding May be Available!

Nonprofits are uniquely positioned to help improve the census count. You have trusted relationships with communities that are hard to count, and often have a base of volunteers who can be mobilized to do outreach.

States and local jurisdictions that have funded their own census outreach efforts may now be in the process of awarding those funds to nonprofits to do this outreach. Check in with your state or local complete count committee or other nonprofits and foundations championing Census 2020 in your area to ensure you are aware of these opportunities and deadlines. Engaging in advocacy and working with networks in your area will increase the likelihood of accessing these funds.

Finally, whether you obtain dedicated funding for this work or not, there are a number of tools that can make this process easier to add on to your other important work. One such tool is “Census Campaign in a Box” which aims to enable nonprofits to create and manage census campaigns quickly and effectively.

Upcoming Events