Start Here: Five Things to Know Before You Start a VITA Site
Started over a decade ago, United Way of King County’s VITA program, known as the “Free Tax Campaign,” is an active leader in promoting economic stability in Western Washington. In 2012, 650 volunteers filed 14,400 returns across 16 tax sites. The growth of the Free Tax Campaign is largely due to ongoing evaluation and adaptation. Reflecting on the pitfalls and success that we have experienced, we would like to offer some thoughts to consider before you start a VITA program in your community.
Research to see if there are other VITA sites (or AARP and TCE) in the area and determine where there are possible gaps, whether in populations served or locations. Useful data can be acquired from the Brookings Institution where you can create a report for your community based on IRS data from prior years. Knowing the statistics for taxpayers who claimed the EITC and reported using a Refund Anticipation Loan can help you pinpoint locations where there is the greatest need. Reports are generated based on your geographic specifications, so you can evaluate data from zip codes, cities, and counties.
In order to create a robust program, it is essential to have buy-ins from community partners. Establishing partnerships with government programs, housing authorities and school districts is important for outreach efforts and program resilience. Through these partnerships leaders emerge who can champion your VITA program and extend your reach into the community. Become an active member in your state and local asset building coalitions to gain insight into on-going asset development in your community and to foster new partnerships.
Site selection is paramount to the success of any VITA site. Consider the location, client accessibility, outreach potential, and technological capacity when selecting the site. Location needs to be readily accessible by clients, preferably on a main thoroughfare, or if placed in a city center choose a recognizable place like the library. Partnering with other non-profits who directly serve low income populations to host tax sites can provide an outstanding platform for outreach. Also, try to secure a site that has in-house technology. It is much easier to work in an established computer lab
, than to set up and break down the site every day. Lastly, make sure that the host site will allow you to have access during evenings and weekends when working people will be available.
Volunteers are truly the heart to any VITA program. They bring humanity to the tax process, connect with and support the clients, and if treated well, will return year after year. Recruiting capable volunteers goes year round, with the more formal push in early fall. Consider looking into a volunteer recruitment partner, like a company or university accounting program, to bring interested parties into the program. Training can be overwhelming, especially for the new volunteers, so provide positive feedback often both during training and throughout the season. And once the tax season has concluded make it a priority to celebrate the accomplishments with your volunteers!
Think Long Term
As you make decisions regarding your VITA program, think long term about the sustainability and trajectory of the program. Choose sites and schedules that show potential for growth. Avoid investing in technology. Instead try to find partners who can provide computers and technological support. Also, the way people file taxes is changing, so try to incorporate self-filing and online tools into the training and service delivery.
By Courtney Noble & Jenny Walden, United Way of King County