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Overcoming distance barriers to volunteer training

Context

CA$H Maine has been a leader in using tax time to communicate the importance of saving and to provide saving options. At tax sites, staff in the role of opportunity guides help taxpayers save and take other actions that improve their financial well-being. They use information collected at intake to engage taxpayers in conversations about their financial challenges and goals and how saving a portion of their tax refund could help. This follows one of our Tax Time Savings Initiative’s promising practices for increasing saving at tax time : dedicate staff or volunteers to encourage saving.

CA$H Maine is a statewide collaboration of 10 local coalitions from across the state, made up of 50 nonprofit and for-profit partners. Since 2003, CA$H Maine has provided free tax return preparation services, typically serving around 4,500 filers during tax season.

In past years, CA$H Maine used a train-the-trainer model to prepare opportunity guide volunteers. Due to the heavy winters in Maine, many local organizations have already developed technologies and procedures that enabled them to work remotely, and CA$H Maine was able to use the University of Maine’s remote training platform to train leaders from each local coalition. Those local leaders, in turn, trained their opportunity guides.

Challenge

CA$H Maine’s challenges this year were two-fold. First, the train-the-trainer model for opportunity guides had proven burdensome for local coalition leaders, given their other responsibilities, and it also led to training inconsistencies. Second, midway through the 2020 tax season, the COVID-19 pandemic limited the ability to conduct in-person trainings and forced the organization to rely on virtual technology for both service delivery and program management.

Response

CA$H Maine’s leadership decided to deliver a single statewide opportunity guide volunteer training via the remote training platform for 2021.

CA$H Maine offered the two-hour training at five different times in January. Because no one signed up for the Saturday offering, just four sessions were held during both daytime and evening hours. Attendance ranged from four to 27, with a total of 55 participants. Those who couldn’t attend a session live could access a recording.

Results

Although the two-hour session length seemed daunting, the sessions moved quickly and smoothly. Training participants viewed the experience positively, especially the discussions of how to use sample conversation starters to talk with filers about savings.

Local coalition coordinators also liked the unified approach. One commented that a consistent statewide training for the opportunity guide volunteers provided updates and new information in an environment that helped them make the best use of their time as volunteers, as well as instilled confidence in their role and provided context by sharing historical information about CA$H Maine.

Looking Forward

CA$H Maine expects to continue the virtual opportunity guide and return preparer trainings beyond the pandemic. One potential improvement the coalition coordinator identified was trying to move some of the presentation content into handouts or online resources to open up time for conversations among volunteers in virtual breakout rooms.

CA$H Maine’s statewide coordinator cited the principal benefits from her perspective: “It broadened access to training expertise, promoted consistency that maximizes the likelihood of successful savings conversations, and gave local volunteers the opportunity to see and experience the program’s statewide reach.”

“And it sure beats battling snow plows,” she added.