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Adapting the work of savings volunteers to virtual VITA

Context

Many tax programs rely on the interaction between taxpayers and return preparers to promote saving at tax time. The Boston Tax Help Coalition and CA$H Maine also use dedicated savings volunteers—called financial guides and opportunity guides, respectively—who have been present at tax sites to assist with savings and other financial capability interventions.

CA$H Maine is a statewide collaboration of ten coalitions, comprised of 50 non- and for-profit partners, working together to help empower Maine individuals and families to achieve long-term financial stability.

Boston Tax Help Coalition is a partnership of nonprofits, businesses, and community organizations that has been promoting the economic independence of working individuals and families since 2001.

CA$H Maine opportunity guides are trained to have extended conversations with taxpayers. They make referrals to local saving opportunities, such as New Ventures Maine’s Rainy Day Savings Account program. For several years, opportunity guides have also provided the Scan and Go drop-off option at tax sites and the offices of local community partners.

Boston Tax Help’s financial guides provide taxpayers with one of the most extensive financial well-being consultations in the VITA field, administering the Financial Check-Up to screen taxpayers for various financial challenges. The Financial Check-Up includes a credit review and is an integral part of the Boston Builds Credit campaign. Financial guides have traditionally been an integrated component of in-person tax services.

Challenge

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, VITA programs dramatically shifted operations to “Virtual VITA,” a term the IRS uses to describe both fully virtual service delivery, where the taxpayer is not physically present at any point and transmits documents electronically, and drop-off, where taxpayers deliver documents to a tax program location but are not present when returns are prepared. Virtual VITA eliminates face-to-face interactions, but it can often reduce communication with taxpayers.

For example, taxpayers using Virtual VITA don’t always know which documents they need to provide and often struggle with uploading and transferring files. The volunteer preparing the return can have difficulty reaching the taxpayer for missing information and obtaining additional information can create delays and burdens for the taxpayers.

Response

Through our Tax-Time Savings initiative, CA$H Maine and Boston Tax Help were in regular dialogue about how to use their respective savings volunteer programs to address the service delivery challenges created by COVID-19.

CA$H Maine built on its opportunity guides’ experience with savings outreach as part of Scan and Go drop-off tax assistance. This year they expanded their role to deliver both saving interventions and intake assistance through video conferences or over the phone. Boston Tax Help’s financial guides began offering the Financial Check-Up via video conference, over the phone, and at drop-off locations. They also assisted drop-off taxpayers with intake and virtual filers with tax document uploads.

Results

Boston Tax Help and CA$H Maine found that their dedicated savings volunteers could successfully promote savings at drop-off, over the phone, or by video conference, but the pandemic did create unique challenges. The rapid expansion of drop-offs and virtual return preparations forced volunteers to make things work on the fly, and as a result, savings volunteers weren’t always available at intake or able to consistently engage about savings.

Even with CA$H Maine’s previous success using opportunity guides at drop-off sites, engaging taxpayers about saving proved extremely difficult. The conversations were less effective at a six-foot distance wearing masks, and there was less time for those conversations. Even when taxpayers were allowed in facilities, there were no large waiting areas and intake needed to be completed quickly. CA$H Maine offered taxpayers, who dropped off tax information, the option of discussing savings by phone but few took advantage of that opportunity.

Savings volunteers were able to improve the intake process by working with taxpayers to provide complete information. This could be a challenge, however, when taxpayers had more complex circumstances, even when the savings volunteers were also certified as return preparers, and tax law changes in December and March also exacerbated intake challenges. Many savings volunteers completed training before these laws were enacted and had to quickly adjust to the changes. As intake then took more time, it was harder to be engaged around the importance of saving.

Looking Forward

Both organizations learned from their dedicated savings volunteer programs during the challenging 2021 filing season. Although savings volunteers didn’t achieve all of their objectives, using them at intake proved it could be effective in engaging clients on both return preparation and savings promotion. Having savings volunteers work remotely also opens up opportunities to utilize them in new ways. For example, it may help expand services, like the Financial Check-Up, beyond the tax site. Initiating intake and savings outreach over video or phone before taxpayers arrive at a tax site can also facilitate a more effective in-person engagement around the importance of saving.

Both CA$H Maine and Boston Tax Help are committed to continuing to use savings volunteers in the future with Virtual VITA for intake and for in-person tax assistance services. Because Virtual VITA requires more time, the ratio of savings volunteers to tax preparers may need to increase to ensure sufficient time for savings interactions.