Charities Spend Millions On Census Outreach

Rosario Dawson at the production of a PSA funded by Voto Latino. i i

hide captionRosario Dawson is one of many celebrities in a public service announcement produced by Voto Latino to encourage Latinos to take part in the 2010 census.

Katy Winn/AP
Rosario Dawson at the production of a PSA funded by Voto Latino.

Rosario Dawson is one of many celebrities in a public service announcement produced by Voto Latino to encourage Latinos to take part in the 2010 census.

Katy Winn/AP

Charitable foundations and nonprofits are taking an unusually active role this year in trying to get an accurate census count. They say the people they serve have the most to benefit but are also among the least likely to participate.

Most Americans will get their 2010 census questionnaire sometime around March 15. Every 10 years, it's a challenge getting everyone to fill out their census forms and send them back to the government.

One of the most active nonprofits is Voto Latino, which tries to encourage civic engagement by Latinos. The group has come up with some pretty cool ways to encourage Latinos to fill out their census forms.

Mobile Marketing To Young Latinos

One of Voto Latino's strategies was to develop a new mobile phone application to be used in Los Angeles County. Users download it, learn about the census and then take a quiz on what they've learned. Then they get to download five free songs by top recording artists, such as Pitbull and Morrissey. And the more they forward the link to friends, the more likely they'll be among a thousand people invited to a free "secret" concert somewhere in the L.A. area.

"The reason we're starting to use this mobile online piece of it is that we found that 25 percent of iPhone users are of Latino decent," says Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino's executive director. She adds that most of them are young.

Kumar says young Latinos hold a lot of sway over their elders and she hopes they'll be able to convince them it's OK to fill out the census form — that there are no questions about worrisome issues such as immigration status.

"And so we're using this opportunity to again say the message is that the census is safe, it's something that you should be doing for your political representation," Kumar says. She adds that they're also trying to let Latinos know that the census helps determine which communities get hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid, for things like education, highways and mass transit. Voto Latino is also working with DJs and bloggers around the country and will be text messaging thousands of Latinos to get out the word.

Foundations Kicking In Money

But who's paying for all this? Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the California Community Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the California Endowment and the Silicon Valley Foundation, says Kumar.

In addition, the Hagedorn Foundation in New York is giving Voto Latino and other nonprofits money for census outreach on Long Island. Voto Latino is also one of two dozen groups splitting more than $1 million as part of the Illinois "Count Me In" campaign. It's funded by 10 foundations, including the Joyce Foundation.

"The Joyce Foundation knew the upcoming census was going to have a huge impact on the populations of folks that we work with and that many of our colleagues in philanthropy work with and care a lot about," says foundation president Ellen Alberding.

These include low-income and minority communities, which are among the most difficult to count either because people are suspicious of the government or because they move around a lot.

The Illinois "Count Me In" campaign is funding groups — such as one that gives free tax help to the poor — that it hopes will reach more people than the government can.

"Let's just take one hard-to-count population, the homeless," says Kyle Caldwell, president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, which is part of another census campaign. "You can't just hire a census worker three months before the census begins and cast them out into the streets and find homeless people. You have to go to people and organizations that have constant interaction with the homeless — and that is charities and nonprofits."

So his group has given $200,000 in grants to local charities to help with the count.

Accurate Census Can Help The Hard-Hit States

Caldwell says an accurate census is especially important in Michigan, which has been hit hard by the bad economy and needs all the federal aid it can get. He says the state's high foreclosure rate has also made it more challenging because many families no longer live at the addresses where their census forms will be mailed.

"And so we have to find those folks who are in some cases living with other family members or living in a temporary housing condition," Caldwell says.

He adds that foundations and nonprofits are doing more to promote the census this year, in part, because state and local governments have less money to do it themselves. California, for example, spent $25 million on the 2000 census. This year it's spending $2 million.

Charities also say an accurate census helps them with their own work, by giving them a better idea where the greatest needs are and how they might spend their charitable dollars in the years ahead.

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