When funders gathered in 2015 to talk about ways to promote a fair and accurate 2020 census, none of us could have imagined perhaps the most fraught decennial census cycle in American history. For six years, a small group of funders working together nationally as the Democracy Funders Collaborative Census Subgroup managed a pooled fund and sought to align funding with other foundations.

The philanthropic community successfully designed and implemented – with numerous nonprofit partners – an unprecedented campaign to ensure that people of color, low-income populations and other historically undercounted communities were properly counted. We won’t know complete results until the Census Bureau releases detailed data over the next year, yet it’s clear that if hundreds of foundations across the country had not joined together in this campaign, census participation would have been far lower.

We’re proud of our accomplishments and realize the importance of continuing this work. We’re glad to share lessons from this collaboration as well as how we plan to carry these lessons forward in planning for the 2030 Census.

More than $117 million was raised at the national level, and millions more within states as funders of all sizes with a wide range of priorities saw the direct connection between an accurate census count and achieving their mission. Collectively, funders at the national level supported more than 260 grantee organizations engaged in litigation, advocacy, outreach, and other activities. Meanwhile, funders coordinated at the regional, state, and local levels, forming collaboratives of their own and supporting even more organizations aimed at ensuring an accurate census.

Here are five lessons from the census experience that may apply to other philanthropic endeavors:

  1. Have a clear plan and message that both funders and grantees support. 
  2. Build coordination and alignment among funders and grantees. 
  3. Establish a transparent decision-making structure. 
  4. Support outreach and education efforts within the philanthropic sector from the start.
  5. Prepare to be flexible. 

Read the full article about philanthropy and the census by Dr. Gary Bass & Angela Cheng at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.