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Counting On Communications Departments for Help

A year before the 2010 Census officially started, Ford Foundation program officer Thomasina Williams was worried.  Part of her work at Ford was to encourage a full and accurate count, particularly among groups that are traditionally undercounted such as people of color and people with low incomes.

Groups that are often undercounted may be leery of filling out Census forms for fear of attracting attention of immigration authorities, because they mistrust government or because they have language barriers.

Ford is the largest foundation funder in the 2010 Census. They have invested more than $15 million to support Census activities including funding grassroots organizations that are working to increase Census participation.

A large portion of federal funding is divvied out according to Census data so an accurate count of undeserved communities is essential. Census data are used to allocate nearly $400 billion a year in federal funds for programs in education, job training, health care, transportation, housing, community development and other community needs.

But Williams worried that neither hard-to-reach communities nor foundations that could help support Census efforts were getting the message about the vital importance of this once-in-ten-years effort.

For help, she turned to the communications department at the Ford Foundation.

“One of the problems with the Census is that it happens only once a decade,” said Williams, program officer, Democracy, Rights and Justice Program at Ford. “There is not a ready audience for this. We had to figure out how to make it more compelling so that people would get engaged in it. That’s a communications issue.”

In the summer of 2009, Williams met with Alfred Ironside, Ford’s Director of Communications, and his team.

“We asked her to tell us about some of her challenges,” Ironside said. “She said that she wasn’t sure that the messaging materials that the Census Bureau was producing were going to be effective at the grassroots level in changing the hearts and minds of the people who are hardest to count.”

Working together, Williams and Ironside created an action plan, hired Hattaway Communications to develop and test messaging that would be effective with key audiences, and rolled out a messaging manual within four months. The result was a timely and relevant tool that provides practical, easy-to-remember messages that activists can use in encouraging people to fill out their Census forms.

Ford publicized the messaging manual through well-subscribed webinars that reached more than 200 grassroots organizations. They also posted it on their Web site and encouraged grantees to get it out to their networks.

Williams also thought it was important to produce a tool kit to help other foundations understand the importance of the 2010 Census. She wanted the tool kit to give them useful ideas for ways that they could help, including becoming vocal about the need for an accurate count and funding nonprofit organizations to work in their communities to encourage people to fill out their Census forms.

“Surprisingly, there wasn’t much documentation or best practices from the Census a decade earlier,” she said. “We thought it would be helpful to have a tool kit to help others figure out how to navigate the multitude of issues now that the Census was upon us. Why should we all make the same mistakes?”

She commissioned the tool kit, which came back at more than 100 pages. It had useful information but it was too long and unwieldy to use without a major edit and revision. Again, Williams turned to the communications department for help. They hired Susan Parker at Clear Thinking Communications to revise the tool kit to a 16-page document that was easy to use.

Parker cut down the document to the most critical information a funder needed to know. The revised tool kit made the case for why foundations should care about an accurate count, included hyperlinks to existing materials, such as sample letters to the editor, and added a call to action at the beginning.

Williams said that she has heard from grantees and other foundations about how useful both products are in their work promoting the 2010 Census.

“Having the resources of the communications department was a godsend to us,” she said. “The tool kit does a brilliant job in getting to the essence of the message that we wanted to communicate. The message manual is very professional and eye catching.”

Williams added, “It’s really important to involve communications on the front end of a project.  They know how to make your message more compelling to people. That was very helpful to me.”

Ironside, meanwhile, said that the goal of the communications department is always to listen to program officers, understand their objectives and help them use communications to support those objectives.

“This was not the case of a foundation touting the fact that it was doing grantmaking on the Census,” Ironside said. “It was a specific effort to use strategic communications to advance the objectives of the program, which in this case is to ensure the most inclusive, accurate Census.  Since the grantmaking zeroed in on the hardest to count groups, the messaging manual and the tool kit were ways to make the grantmaking more effective.”


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