The United States census, taken every 10 years, is vital to the philanthropic and business sectors, government, and communities across our country. The federal government allocates over $800 billion each year to states using formulas that rely on census data like population size and other demographic indicators. Health-focused foundations, in particular, know well the importance of census data, especially since Medicaid is one of the largest federal programs whose state-by-state allocations are determined by census data. Census data are used to reapportion seats in the United States House of Representatives, and to draw state and local legislative districts, ensuring fair political representation. The philanthropic sector also uses census data to better understand needs in local communities and support tailored solutions, identify at-risk or vulnerable populations, and determine how to optimally allocate funds in any given grant cycle.
In recognition of these stakes, Philanthropy Northwest (PNW) has been actively engaged in local, regional, and national efforts to ensure a fair and accurate census. Since 2017, we’ve provided a growing set of resources and support to our members in our six-state region. In partnership with the United Philanthropy Forum, we’ve elevated our concerns about the unique challenges facing this census among congressional members during the forum’s annual Foundations on the Hill. We also serve on the national leadership team of the Funder’s Census Initiative, that is providing a national platform for coordinated efforts and learning among funders. And on April 1, 2019, we followed in the footsteps of philanthropy-serving organizations and funder collaboratives across the country when we announced the launch of the Washington Census Equity Fund (Equity Fund).
Collaborative funds are quite common in our sector, but in the context of Census 2020, they’ve been particularly strategic and innovative, and empowering in galvanizing the support and participation of funders across the country. That holds true for Washington. With initial seed funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at the time of our announcement we had twenty philanthropic partners that had either committed resources to the pooled fund or made aligned funding commitments. We have funders who are experienced civic engagement funders and identify strong links to a robust census and future civic engagement efforts, and we have funders who are real newbies to supporting activities that are outside traditional grantmaking. We manage the fund, facilitate a governance structure, cultivate resources, track aligned funding, and develop cross-sector partnerships among a diverse set of funders that we hope will serve us well for future efforts. We aim to raise and disburse $2-3 million in private dollars, and through targeted community advocacy encourage more than $15 million in state investments toward supporting Census 2020 outreach and organizing activities.
Through this pooled fund, the level of engagement by funders in Washington has been remarkable and speaks to the importance of these types of coordinated funder activities, especially when it involves an important goal and short-term, campaign-like efforts by a myriad of participants. And what is particularly galvanizing for our partners is that our goals go beyond a robust and accurate census. We hope that our philanthropic efforts will result in long-term impact, where we envision a strong and vibrant network of community-based organizations across the state; greater capacity among people of color-led organizations that will be critical to reaching hard-to-count communities; and stronger partnerships and trust between the philanthropic sector and community organizations.
Members of our Equity Fund know there is a lot at stake in Washington. According to 2010 census data and the 2016 American Community Survey, nearly 15 percent of our state population, or 1.1 million people, are foreign-born. Another 11 percent, or 790,000 people, live in hard-to-count (HTC) neighborhoods. At least 53,000 Washingtonians live in rural, tribal, or non-traditional tracts that did not receive a census questionnaire by mail in 2010, making them HTC because of the additional cost and difficulty of conducting in-person enumeration. And in 2016, 12.6 percent of Washington’s households had no internet subscriptions or only dial-up access, putting these households at greater risk of being undercounted as the Census Bureau prepares to conduct its first online census in 2020.
Beyond the challenges Washington and other states face in ensuring that HTC populations are counted, the Census 2020 has faced unprecedented challenges that we know all too well: insufficient or misallocation of federal government funding; delayed planning and implementation; lack of agency leadership; the possible addition of a citizenship question; and a first-time, large-scale, online component. For all these reasons and more, we’ve seen unprecedented engagement by our funders in Washington, the Northwest, and across the country.
There is so much at stake! I truly believe this is a pivotal moment for philanthropy that will forever change how we see ourselves in relation to our communities and country. During our post-mortem of Census 2020, we can dissect and evaluate our impact, which I’m betting will be significant. And I know this based on past experience. The 2010 Census data was released when I led President Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). We used that data in myriad ways to tell a fuller and richer story of AAPIs in this country. It was galvanizing, and inspirational, and pivotal for the AAPI community. I saw the power of data, and with the support of seasoned and experienced staff at PNW, I’m grateful that we’ve been able to play a small role in what has been an unprecedented, national effort in philanthropy to ensure a fair, robust, and accurate Census.