VITAcon: sharing ideas, building community
On September 28, Prepare + Prosper and Prosperity Now co-hosted the 2017 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance—or VITA—Convening in Saint Paul, Minnesota. More than 80 people from free tax preparation programs of all shapes and sizes from across the country came together to share insights, spark peer discussions, and learn about work being done by others in the field.
The day was energizing and powerful, not only by way of information shared but in connections made and community strengthened. As people traveled back to their respective corners of the country—from Miami to Portland to Cincinnati to Ithaca to Winston-Salem—with new ideas, I followed-up with a few to ask what they learned and wanted to share with those unable to join the day's conversations.
Below is what they had to say.
There was so much information that I learned from everyone I came in contact with at the VITA Convening. I was able to share with our partners in Texas information about PeerSay, which I heard about from Janne Huang (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). It’s an app for collecting stories. You download it to your phone, can voice record interviews, and it gives you three questions to ask: name, role (client, volunteer, staff, etc.) and “Who would you like to thank and why?” With each question, you hit the record button. It’s very cool and will be an excellent way to capture client stories! It was also amazing to hear how everyone at the Convening was on-board with encouraging VITA clients to save and the importance of saving. I look forward to meeting like this again. It made me appreciate more what I do. Rebecca, you rock!
Even though we work in the field of taxes, which is highly technical and procedural, I always find myself learning about "think outside the box" ideas. At the volunteer management and training session, Rina Saperstein (United Way of Greater Cincinnati) was talking about how they try to recruit people who don’t have tax backgrounds for certain roles—like improv or theater people to serve as greeters or savings promoters. And I thought to myself, that's a genius idea.
What a dedicated, hard-working, and creative group of people! True both for those there who have been doing community tax work for many years and the participants who are newer to the field. There was such a wealth of information exchanged. No matter the challenge or goal, someone had a helpful insight. This is the great value of both these gatherings and the year-round work of networks such as Taxpayer Opportunity Network (TON).
I learned that programs are doing quality review in lots of different ways. Some methods directly involve the preparer in the reviews and some don't—and there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Many programs do not have formal training for their reviewers, but would like to have some training available.
The biggest takeaway for me has to do with outreach and publicity. Volunteer recruitment is always a daunting task. What I learned is that I have to be way more active and visible on social media platforms. Twenty-second videos or “Humans of NY” style pictures with short paragraphs of explanation, highlighting the volunteers’ experience coupled with “Brand Ambassadors” (existing volunteers who will re-post your message to their contacts) will help me to reach a new audience.
Even though essentially we are all doing the same thing—preparing taxes—there are a variety of methods to execute different parts of the process and so much to learn from the creativity of our peers! I learned from Barbara DelBene that they use a different set of volunteers to handle the signature process with clients after quality review which frees them up to keep the flow of tax preparation going. Quality review is often the place where we get backed up because reviewers are taking clients through that signature process so this is a great idea to implement especially at busier sites!
On the technical side, I learned about forms 14157 and 8918 for reporting fraudulent providers and unreported social security (thanks Thomas Larson at Prepare + Prosper and others). On the program improvement side, thanks to Rae Pilarski (United Way of Tucson and
Southern Arizona) for the idea of doing tax forecasting as a part of quality review; I really want to try that. On marketing, I learned from Amanda Hanson (White Earth Investment Initiative in Minnesota) about potentially spacing alternate messages and that “free” might not be a good advertising term, but “passionate” is. I met peers I can turn to for help and collaboration in the future. Overall, I drew great comfort, strength, and energy from being a part of a community.
The VITA Convening was great because I was able to connect with leaders from a around the country to learn how they tackle tax prep in their communities. I was blown away by the innovative ideas and best practices everyone brought to the table. Also, I learned the “secret sauce” to hosting a successful taxathon (12-to-24 hour nonstop tax prep events) and I’m hoping to host my first taxathon this coming tax season! Here's a link to tools and information from organizations that have done one, like The Piton Foundation in Denver and Prepare + Prosper in Minnesota.
I learned that for volunteers there’s no such thing as too much training and that people really don’t want to hang out at happy hour. I’m encouraged to offer an early, pre-season TaxSlayer refresher, or state tax workshop just to focus on Minnesota’s very complicated rent rebate and property tax credit return. It’s a measure of our wonderful volunteers’ commitment to VITA that they’d rather spend two precious hours of their busy lives practicing tax prep than having drinks in a noisy bar.
I had an amazing time learning from folks at the VITA Convening and meeting folks I’d been emailing or calling for years! I learned a great tip from Pennie Clayton (United Way of Tarrant County). Pennie works with professors at her local colleges to recruit student VITA volunteers. Pennie’s team created short videos on the importance of VITA volunteering and had these videos showing on televisions across the campus, which attracted many new student volunteers.
With IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center offices and some state department of revenue offices closing, the VITA program is the de-facto free tax preparation in the community. Our client base (a $60,000 income threshold) is a large target market that we can help. Collectively, the TON & VITA family is one of the strongest and most passionate group of individuals whose focus is about helping individuals meet their tax obligations and getting whatever is due them. Someone in the TON & VITA family will have an answer or be able to respond to a question or situation whether it’s an organizational issue or a tax law question. If a VITA program isn’t a part of TON, it should be!! TON can be stronger and larger than Tax-Aide.
I heard a great tip from Rae Pilarski (United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona)! At Rae’s sites, quality reviewers complete a tax forecasting checklist. The checklist highlights likely changes in a person’s tax situation for the upcoming year, like a child aging out of a credit or a change in filing status. A lot of volunteers start conversations about life events (and the tax impact) naturally, but a checklist during quality review is an awesome and practical way to ensure volunteers keep taxpayer education top of mind when finishing a return.
I learned that there are friends to be made and partnerships to be built throughout the VITA field. In a way, we are our own “industry.” We speak the same language, use the same forms, endure similar challenges, and share common goals. I was reaffirmed that there is strength in numbers, and together, we can create an immeasurable impact (although we will want some data) on the financial lives and security of the taxpayers we serve.