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Case Study

How New York City Census used Mobilize to shift to virtual

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached New York City, the census effort took on new importance. The New York Public Engagement Unit used Mobilize and other campaigning tools to get out the count.
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more signups from Mobilize network



4 million

phone calls

Once every ten years, the United States Census takes a count of every person in the United States. The taking of the census is mandated by the United States Constitution and has occurred every 10 years since 1790.

But the census is so much more than just a count. Census information is used to determine New York City's fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds for public education, affordable housing, infrastructure, and more — as well as the number of seats New York will have in Congress.

Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts the census—a count of every living person in the country. The data collected by the census determines how the federal government will distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities. The more people that fill out the census in a community, the greater share of resources that community receives. Census results also determine the amount of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and, consequently, the number of Electoral College votes they are awarded.

In New York City, the largest and one of the most diverse cities in America, the census is particularly important. New York City neighborhoods, particularly those with large populations of immigrants and people of color, have historically been undercounted in the census and therefore deprived of the political representation and resources they deserve.

To respond to this critical challenge, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a first-of-its-kind organizing initiative to secure the City’s fair share of resources and representation. This initiative, NYC Census 2020, had two primary goals:

  1. Increase New York City’s self-response rate, focusing primarily on historically undercounted neighborhoods;
  2. Close the gap between New York City’s self-response rate and the national average. 

The City partnered with a coalition of organizations representing many of the City’s historically undercounted communities to develop a detailed, comprehensive outreach campaign plan for New York City. The plan included significant door-to-door and community canvassing efforts, a massive subway ad campaign, and pop-up centers where individuals could receive in-person assistance when filling out their forms. These activities were set to launch in mid-March 2020, when the national census form went live. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached New York City, the census effort took on new importance as funding for the City’s recovery would depend in part on its response rates. However, the pandemic offered an unprecedented challenge: How would the NYC Census 2020 team “Get Out The Count” virtually? 

The City of New York’s Public Engagement Unit (PEU), which uses innovative, campaign-style tools and tactics to proactively connect New Yorkers to key City services, empowered the NYC Census 2020 team with new digital outreach tools to help tackle this challenge. These tools included peer-to-peer texting and online phone banking tools, as well as Mobilize for event management and volunteer recruitment. Thanks to these tools and a creative, agile campaign plan, the NYC Census 2020 team was able to quickly pivot to a virtual outreach strategy just as New York City issued its initial stay-at-home order. The team quickly rolled out the first “Text Out The Count” and “Call Out The Count” events on Mobilize. Volunteers were able to sign up for these events online using Mobilize and participate from the safety of their homes.

In addition to serving as an organizing hub where volunteers could see all of the upcoming census volunteer events and easily get involved, Mobilize significantly freed up staff time by automating and streamlining traditional organizing tasks. Given the rapid pace at which volunteers were signing up and the short timeframe staff had to set up online campaigns, Mobilize’s automated texts and emails to volunteers were instrumental in getting vital information out quickly and regularly, confirming volunteers for their shifts and ultimately ensuring turnout. 

“Without an event management and volunteer recruitment platform, we would have spent a lot more time on the phone or sending emails. And we wouldn’t have had nearly as many volunteers! We were able to recruit, schedule and confirm volunteers from across the city for shifts without having to pick up the phone or step out the door, which was critical during the early days of the pandemic.” —Sasha Beder-Schenker, NYC Census 2020 Deputy Field Director

The NYC Census 2020 team had spent months recruiting a large base of volunteers, and the Mobilize network helped grow this group exponentially by asking volunteers who signed up to share the event with their own social networks while also driving them to additional event opportunities. NYC Census 2020 received 35% more signups from the Mobilize network: 10% from bring-a-friend prompts and 25% from automated event suggestions to regular users.

Over the course of several months, the NYC Census 2020 team recruited tens of thousands of volunteer shifts, yielding over 7 million texts and 4 million phone calls encouraging and assisting New Yorkers to fill out the census.

The team exceeded expectations by outpacing the Census Bureau's own pre-COVID estimate for self-response in the New York City metro area. New York City surpassed the self-response rate of most demographically-similar cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Houston, Dallas, and more. 

The work doesn’t end there! The City of New York’s Public Engagement Unit (PEU), continues to use Mobilize for a variety of important programs and initiatives. PEU’s Get Covered team uses Mobilize to recruit volunteers to assist with enrolling New Yorkers in health insurance programs. Their Tenant Support Unit uses Mobilize to recruit volunteers to spread the word about the New York state COVID Rent Relief Extension Program and to assist tenants with housing issues so they can stay in their homes. Their DemocracyNYC team is recruiting volunteers with Mobilize to help educate New Yorkers about upcoming elections and Ranked Choice Voting.