Philanthropy Steps Up to Ensure Missouri Counts in 2020


Alex Rankin, Director of Government Affairs

In August 2018, Gateway Center for Giving hosted an event for funders to learn more about the 2020 Census and understand the importance of philanthropic involvement. At the time, Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) was already planning to steer efforts to promote the 2020 Census, but this event and the collaboration that followed further solidified our commitment. This was the first meeting held on the topic, and it was apparent to all who attended that achieving an accurate count was important for Missouri.  The energy in the room was palpable and interest among the local funder community was high. Together, we became known as the St. Louis Census Funders Working Group.1

We understood from the beginning that the 2020 Census is a once in a decade opportunity to ensure our communities get what they need to thrive. We began holding monthly meetings to prioritize the ways we could work collectively. At every meeting, the number of partners around the table would grow and ideas would blossom. There was only one problem. We were only getting one perspective – the funder’s perspective. We began to get others involved. The working group eventually decided to host a St. Louis Regional Census Convening to bring community stakeholders together to learn more about the census and discuss solutions to achieve a full count in 2020. We had two goals for the convening: to raise awareness within our region and to learn from community organizations in order to inform possible next steps. In May 2019, we brought together over 100 people to reinforce the importance of collective action around census, hearing from our regional director from the U.S. Census Bureau, as well community leaders who brought varying perspectives and insights. We asked groups to share their ideas on opportunities, barriers, and tools to help ensure an accurate census count in 2020. The dialogue from the convening was documented and used as a North Star for the working group from that point on.

As a result of the convening, we decided to create a pooled census fund, but we weren’t sure how to start. We wanted to create a mechanism to support trusted voices to promote 2020 Census participation, but we also wanted to maintain humility and flexibility in designing the opportunity. There had been other national and local examples of shared grantmaking, but none seemed to fit the mold of what we were looking to do. We eventually pulled from multiple sources and created the St. Louis Regional Census Fund. The pooled fund was set up by the St. Louis Community Foundation. Funders joined by signing a memorandum of understanding that demonstrated the shared commitment and expectations of those around the table. Participating organizations truly believed in work that was forthcoming and the impact it could possibly have, because the group joined the pooled fund before we determined who or what we were going to invest in. Collaboration drove our process, so we waited until we received commitments from several funders before determining the request for proposals to community organizations.

We eventually generated a pooled fund of approximately $400,000 through contributions from 10 funders to commit for census engagement and awareness projects. Little did we know, we would have 65 organizations vying for that opportunity. You may think that this sounds complicated and messy, and it was, but it was also a lesson in collaboration and group decision making, ultimately making our final result even better. In the end, the working group was able to fund 30 organizations across the eight-county St. Louis region to build awareness and influence participation in the 2020 Census. These organizations serve as trusted voices within their communities and are best suited to broaden the reach of the messaging that we’re all using to promote census. We’ve asked all grantees to connect with MFH’s 2020 Census campaign, Missouri Counts, and use the outreach materials.

Although funds have been awarded, it’s important to note that the collaborative efforts of the St. Louis Census Funders Working Group do not end here. We will continue to work with partners on the ground through May, providing operational and messaging updates as needed. We hope to continue to build on this work as a region, so that we’re prepared for the next decade’s census activity. Upon completion of the 2020 Census, the lessons derived from this effort will be used for funders and community organizations alike in building capacity for future civic engagement goals.

1Members of the St. Louis Census Funders Working Group include Clark-Fox Family foundation, Deaconess Foundation, Gateway Center for Giving, Incarnate Word Foundation, Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis, Marillac Mission Fund, Missouri Foundation for Health, St. Louis City Senior Fund, St. Louis County Children’s Services Fund, St. Louis Community Foundation, St. Louis Mental Health Board, and United Way of Greater St. Louis.