Insights from Census Outreach Campaign

Immigrants, like other marginalized communities, are labeled as “hard-to-count” by the United States Census Bureau. The implication is that immigrants are in some way lacking, whether in information or interest. Our work says otherwise.

This spring, MAF lead a thoughtful, targeted census outreach campaign. By crafting emotionally engaging, culturally relevant messaging and building on the foundation of trust that connects non-profits to the clients we serve, MAF moved the needle. The Census Bureau estimated a 60% response rate for the 2020 census, the lowest in decades. After our week-long, digital-first outreach campaign, we saw MAF clients bring that number up to 83%. This was driven in large part by immigrant clients who turned out to be most engaged, responding to SMS outreach at an incredible rate of 54%, more than twice the industry standard. Immigrants, we found, were in fact the easiest-to-count.

We offer this insight to the field to inform the work of the wide coalition of organizations fighting hard to lift up the voices of marginalized communities in the census. MAF believes that the unique role of non-profits in this effort is rooted in the relationships of trust cultivated over time. As a beacon of light in the fog of today’s misinformation war, non-profits are critical messengers of crucial and reliable information.

Time is running out before the deadline of September 30th so we’ve compiled actionable insights to inform the needed and critical efforts of partners in the MAF network and beyond. What follows is the story of our census campaign, detailing what we did and the lessons we learned. We hope you find these learnings useful, apply them to your own work, and that you’ll consider joining us as we continue to lift up the voices of the incredible people we serve every day.

MAF begins with the lived experiences of our clients.

In the context of a census outreach campaign, the messaging we used had to be both timely and relevant. It quickly became clear, though, that standard messaging from the Census Bureau was neither. The two most common messages we found from the Census Bureau described the importance of the census in terms of power (congressional representation) or money (federal budget allocations). For people who are being told that they have no place in the democratic process in the first place, and who are routinely denied social services, these points are, at best, meaningless or at worst, insulting.

Based on our rich understanding of the lives of our clients, we knew improving the messaging would be simple. The key was to craft emotionally engaging and culturally relevant language centered on themes of belonging and community.

To test our intuition, we designed a campaign to compare the results of 2 standard census messages against 2 messages we created in-house. Another non-profit, the immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica, joined in our campaign. Together, we delivered these messages to 4,200 clients across English and Spanish-speaking communities using a combination of email and SMS.

The results came in: the single most effective messaging angle in our campaign was not power or money, but belonging.

This result implies that messaging to lift up the experience of truly being accepted is powerful. Perhaps its because it runs counter to a dominant national discourse that actively denies the humanity and rejects the validity of immigrant communities as full participants in American life. As an organization, MAF has never shied away from pushing back on dominant discourse and the results of this campaign demonstrate why.

To craft messaging at MAF is not simply a matter of disseminating information but, rather, is an effort to speak to the soul. We maintain that messaging must speak to the core of our clients because everything we do, from announcements to new services, starts with the assumption that our clients are complex, unique human beings who are far more than a data point can ever capture. When we articulate messaging that speaks to our clients’ lived, emotional experiences, we are reaching for their hearts, not minds. The campaign results show that this is a fundamental strategy for success.

SMS was the most effective method of communication, especially for clients who speak Spanish.

The second insight of the campaign was around methods. Clients who selected English as their preferred language were more likely to respond to an email than those who preferred Spanish. Yet for SMS, the reverse was true. English-speaking clients responded at a rate of 41% while Spanish-speaking clients responded to our SMS at a staggering 52%

These results push back against the prevailing narrative that Spanish-speaking communities are difficult to reach or “hard to count.” What we found was the exact opposite. With the right message and targeted through the right medium, Spanish-speaking clients are far from disengaged, but in fact the most engaged. The responsibility, then, is on outreach managers to inform their campaigns with these insights in order to most effectively meet our communities where they’re at.

With these results in hand, we began speaking with other non-profits about their civic engagement strategies.

What we found across the board was a shared understanding of the importance of civic action. Yet for overworked and underfunded organizations, there was no excess capacity to run multi-channel campaigns given that SMS tools in particular were either too expensive or time-consuming to manage. Simply put, the existing tools on the market were not built for non-profits.

We decided to change that. In partnership with a highly skilled team of technologists at the software studio super{set}, we built our own digital tool that makes it easy for nonprofits to effectively mobilize their communities. The results were striking.

Our 3-step campaign to 4,200 clients lead to an impressive 36% response rate and, by our estimates, secured $6 million in funding for communities that deserve it. All within one week and managed by one staff member. The technology we built can allow non-profits to lead effective campaigns without a full-time campaign manager or breaking the bank

MAF’s Invitation To Partners

In early conversations with other non-profits, we found that most were relying 80-90% on in-person outreach for their census campaigns. With the onset of COVID, those plans have gone out the window. Now that the White House has cut a precious month off of the census timeline, the clock is ticking.

MAF is showing up by utilizing our tested messaging and developed technology to scale up census outreach efforts. With the support of The Grove Foundation, we’re making final push to ensure that all of hard-working clients in the MAF network are counted, seen and receive the resources they deserve.

Building on this momentum, we’re planning a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign informed by the insights gained from the census work. Continuing to develop MAF’s mobilization efforts is a necessary step because we are staring down the most historic election of our lives. The moment is calling us all to step up, punch above our standard silos and lift up the voices of the communities we serve.

If you’d like to join our growing community of partners sharing lessons learned and shaping the future of our new Beacon platform, please email us. Our goal is to ensure that the technology made by a non—profit remains timely and relevant for other non-profits. You can learn more about MAF’s focus on civic action in this conversation between CEO, José Quiñonez and Director of Mobilization, Joanna Cortez.


PS We’ll leave you with our take on a lesson from history, to ensure it’s mistakes are not repeated.

First they came for the immigrants

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for the poor

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for me

And there were others

So many others

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