Signs outside the community center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis recently touted a job opening with great pay and flexible hours.

That's what drew Farhiyo Mohamed, 26, of Minneapolis, to the hiring event for 2020 census workers organized by a local nonprofit, Pillsbury United Communities. The college student was looking for part-time work between attending classes and, as a Somali immigrant who speaks three languages, she said she could convey to other immigrants why they need to be counted.

"I could help with that," she said. "It is important."

As Minnesota gears up for the census in April 2020, nonprofits are already taking the lead, intensifying a grassroots effort to get out the word about the once-in-a-decade count. Across the country, nonprofits and foundations are getting more involved, and Minnesota's sector is leading the way.

"Our objective is to get Minnesotans ready to respond. We don't get a do-over with the census," said Bob Tracy, director of public policy at the Minnesota Council on Foundations, who added that the sector organized sooner, starting in 2015, and is more engaged than for the past census. "Foundations and nonprofits are much, much more active."

In Grand Rapids, the Blandin Foundation is dedicating $50,000 to local communities' census work and setting up computers so rural residents can apply for Census Bureau jobs. In St. Paul, the Asian American Organizing Project has gone door-knocking on the city's East Side to educate residents about the count and will do phone banking, more door-knocking and canvassing outside grocery stores in the coming months.

And in Minneapolis, Pillsbury United Communities hosted the recent job recruitment fair at the Brian Coyle Center in Cedar-Riverside as the census looks to hire thousands in the Twin Cities — with pay ranging from $12 to $34 an hour. The nonprofit is spreading the word about the 2020 count on its KRSM Radio station and in its North News publication, at community centers where residents pick up food and at events such as health fairs. Volunteers and the nonprofit's 150 staff, who collectively speak 19 languages, also will fan out across the city to go door-knocking.

What's at stake

"It's a natural role and responsibility for nonprofits to collaborate and participate in these efforts," said Meghan Muffett, the nonprofit's spokesperson.

The public and private sectors are teaming up to fund this extra outreach.

The Legislature approved $1.6 million in the last session for census work. And the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership, which was convened in part by the Minnesota Council on Foundations, is aiming to raise another $1.2 million by September from foundations and major donors. That will fund the work that nonprofits and other community organizations are doing, especially among historically undercounted populations such as American Indians and immigrants.

There's a lot at stake in Minnesota since billions of federal dollars are allocated based on the census results; plus, the state is at risk of losing a congressional seat. Nonprofits and foundations also rely on census data to guide their decisions such as determining where to build senior housing or where to invest grant dollars.

'We can do better'

Nonprofits are a good fit for outreach because they're usually nonpartisan organizations that are embedded in and trusted by communities, already helping residents with things like filling out Social Security forms or finding a place to sleep, said Marie Ellis, the public policy director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. The council is training nonprofits in outstate Minnesota about how to get involved and asking nonprofits statewide to pledge to mobilize and participate in census 2020.

"Nonprofit engagement will certainly play a big part of what the quality of the count looks like," state demographer Susan Brower added. "It's bound to make a difference this time around. We need nonprofits big and small to engage with us to continue doing this work."

With citizens' growing distrust in government, Brower said it may be more important than ever that nonprofits are stepping up with census outreach.

Also, unlike previous census years, Ellis said there's more energy and awareness this time because the census has constantly been in the news over funding shortfalls, data privacy concerns and a legal fight over whether it will have a citizenship question. Disparities in the state are also more evident this time, said Blandin Foundation CEO Kathy Annette, one of four co-chairs of the first-ever statewide Complete Count Committee.

"We want a full and fair census so the entire state is represented," Annette said. "Rural [Minnesota] is undercounted and we have to figure out why. We can do better."

She said there's a challenge to reach some rural Minnesotans who couch-hop, are snowbirds or work seasonal jobs. Others, she said, are resistant to participate in a government count.

Reducing barriers

Some immigrants share that same concern and also have language barriers, Muffett added.

That's in part why Pillsbury United Communities held the recent recruiting event, hoping the census will hire Somali-American residents like Mohamed to help confirm people's addresses and explain why the census is important.

Minnesota had an 81% response rate in 2010 — the second highest in the country. But the 2020 census is the first digital count where people will be encouraged to respond online. Muffett said that could be difficult for people without access to a computer or the internet, which is why nonprofits like hers are hosting open computer labs for residents in need.

Jewelean Jackson, 70, used Brian Coyle Center's computer lab recently to apply for a census job. She said she's worked for every census since 1980 and is passionate about helping spread the message to her neighbors in north Minneapolis about why they need to be counted.

"It's important for us to have an accurate count," she said. "I try to educate my community. Unfortunately there's too many of us who thinks … they don't count. The bottom line is that is how decisions are made." 612-673-4141