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Remote facilitated self-assistance with volunteer support

Context

The Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is a reliable source of quality and free tax assistance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program needed to find a solution for operating safely in a socially distanced environment. Most VITA programs switched to Virtual VITA, providing fully virtual services, in which the taxpayer weren’t required to be present, and drop-off locations were provided for delivering documents

The Financial Empowerment Center at Prince George’s Community College believes a strong local economy and financially stable households benefit the entire community. PGCC’s expert volunteers provide financial coaching, financial workshops, tax preparation, small business coaching, and credit improvement solutions.

Challenge

Although Virtual VITA was a viable option for many programs, PGCC VITA had several concerns. Taxpayers sometimes didn’t know what documents they needed to provide and often struggle with uploading documents in a fully virtual process. Volunteer return preparers also often encountered difficulties reaching taxpayers to obtain missing information. Because PGCC was unable to provide a large space to gather safely, volunteers needed to work from home, which raised additional concerns about the security of home computers and internet connections

To utilize its strong base of experienced volunteers, avoid requiring taxpayers to upload information, and address the security challenges of volunteers working from home, the PGCC VITA program decided to use Facilitated Self-Assistance (FSA) as the primary service method. With FSA, taxpayers prepare and file their own returns using self-preparation software, and a VITA volunteer is available to answer questions in a timely manner via phone, e-mail, or text. Tax programs generally use FSA as an additional option for taxpayers who need no or minimal assistance with their returns. Taxpayers who participate in FSA sometimes don’t need any assistance in future years.

Although some VITA programs have offered FSA at workstations at local tax sites, it has more commonly been an at-home option. However, unlike the usual FSA clientele, PGCC needed to figure out how to use this mode of service delivery with taxpayers who have more complicated returns and little experience preparing them.

Response

PGCC decided to structure its FSA similar to a traditional in-person process. Taxpayers seeking assistance were given an appointment when a volunteer would meet them in an online video conference to provide step-by-step assistance with the online tax filing software. Because the taxpayer entered their own information, there was no need to upload or drop off documents. This reduced information security risks by limiting data sharing. Both the taxpayer and volunteer were safely working from home.

Taxpayers needed a computer or laptop with a microphone and reliable internet service. The PGCC program suggested taxpayers could have a trusted friend or family member join them on the call from home to help prepare the return. It also offered a drop-off option for taxpayers without computer access or reliable internet connection where taxpayers delivered documents to a PGCC staff member or volunteer on campus, and those returns were prepared in the usual tax site space.

PGCC VITA’s experienced volunteers provided step-by-step assistance, and they were able to respond when things didn’t go as planned. These volunteers know the importance of savings and financial empowerment, so they found moments during their engagement with taxpayers to talk about the other services of the Financial Empowerment Center.

Results

The PGCC VITA program was pleased with serving taxpayers using the remote FSA strategy and keeping everyone safe. Many taxpayers easily completed their returns with just a little instruction. The experienced volunteers were skilled in recognizing when a taxpayer might be struggling. The drop-off service option was a critical component because not every taxpayer was successful with FSA. For example, some taxpayers’ home computer setups ended up not being suited for video conferencing.

Although taxpayers were exposed to the opportunities of the Financial Empowerment Center when signing up for appointments and in conversations with the volunteers, the savings interventions didn’t work as effectively as in person. This was partly a product of having to develop a new return preparation process quickly. The program had to trust volunteers to find their moments rather than having a formal plan.

Looking Forward

PGCC VITA, like other tax programs, is looking forward to returning to in-person services so it will likely lower the profile of its FSA model next tax season. But, FSA will remain a reliable method for serving taxpayers who are homebound or unable to travel to atax site. FSA also offers a post-season option when tax sites are closed, and assistance resources are limited. FSA also represents an excellent opportunity to retain experienced volunteers looking for a more convenient volunteering option. With more lead time for training and planning, PGCC VITA anticipates being able to train FSA coaches more effectively in encouraging savings during the video interaction.