Confronted with a brand-new need for outreach, Carter Elliott and the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign launched a brand-new campaign to handle it.
Just as the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign (APC) was preparing to celebrate the end of its first season providing free tax preparation assistance in 2008, Campaign Manager Carter Elliott learned about the need for outreach efforts to help eligible seniors and veterans with disabilities claim their Economic Stimulus Payments (ESP). Carter didn’t want to wear down his existing volunteer tax preparers. But he was determined to help eligible residents receive their ESP.
The Opportunity Fulfilled
“Since the IRS didn’t require volunteers completing tax returns only for stimulus payments to be certified, we recruited 50 new volunteers to continue ESP outreach through October 15, 2008. We were very successful in recruiting college students and accountants. Because this was a short-term project and the volunteers did not need to be certified to prepare the simple ESP returns, it was easy to find volunteers. I was able to provide just a script for the volunteers and asked them to participate in a short training session,” recalls Carter, a participant in the Center’s 2005 Tax Credit Outreach Train-the-Trainer Seminar. With this team of new volunteers, APC — a project of the Atlanta Community Food Bank — conducted 25 ESP tax preparation events during the summer of 2008 and collaborated with the IRS, AARP, and Georgia Rural Legal Services to conduct a three-day tax return blitz across the state in mid-September. In total, APC filed 1,100 tax returns for stimulus payments, primarily for seniors and veterans with disabilities. To reach this population, the APC arranged visits to senior complexes and community centers. This is in addition to the 8,317 tax returns completed at 44 free tax preparation sites, including 4 mobile sites during the regular tax season.
In 2009, APC expanded the number of its VITA sites to 56 including 10 mobile sites and added asset-building opportunities to help tax filers maximize their refunds. APC worked with four financial institutions to help residents open bank accounts; screened residents for eligibility for public benefits at VITA sites using online programs such as “EarnBenefits”; and partnered with a credit union to pilot a low-cost refund anticipation loan service at two VITA sites. This service provided an alternative to the high-interest loans marketed by paid tax preparers to receive a tax refund quickly.
Carter credits APC’s success in its ESP outreach and first two years of free tax preparation to the Campaign’s strategic approach to outreach.
Carter Elliott’s 10 Key Elements for Successful Tax Credit Outreach
- Organizational support. My Executive Director and the Board of Directors fully support the APC, understand its value, and are committed to its success.
- Strong relationships with the IRS and VITA site hosts. We established memoranda of understanding with the IRS and each VITA site to clearly define roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
- Familiar VITA site locations. We locate our VITA sites in places that our clients already visit and feel safe. Sites include community-based organizations, churches, and libraries – each located in high-need communities.
- Strategic Partnerships. It is important to identify partnerships that can help you achieve your program objectives. For example, partners have helped our VITA sites build technological capacity. Working with our local United Way, we have received 60 laptops from IBM to use for the VITA program and through the United Way, we have received 40 printers. We have also received several computers from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. We lend this equipment out to VITA sites to help them improve their service. In addition, we have partnered with AT&T to provide cell phones for our site coordinators, as well as DSL lines for some of our VITA sites, so that they could switch to TaxWise On-Line.
- VITA site adoption. We’ve encouraged corporations and non-profits to “adopt” a VITA site, meaning they commit to providing volunteers and tech support on specific days throughout the tax season.
- Technological support. We’ve contracted with a technology consultant to provide IT support to maintain equipment at all VITA sites.
- Online volunteer registration. We centralized our volunteer registration using an online program that keeps track of volunteers’ training dates and shifts. The program can automatically send volunteers email reminders about their schedules.
- Toll-free answering service. We’ve set up an answering service to schedule tax-filer appointments for the VITA sites that require them. Each day the site receives a list of the day’s appointments.
- Data collection. We have a Relational EFIN (Electronic Filer’s Identification Number), which allows us to collect demographic information from each of our VITA sites and in turn easily provide information to funders and other partners in the community. After the tax season, we share these data with the VITA site so that they can identify ways to improve their services to better meet the needs of their clients.
- Services beyond tax preparation. While we focused solely on filing tax returns in our first year to develop baseline measurements, in Year Two we began to integrate other services into our VITA site model. We plan to continue expanding our asset-building and savings initiatives each year. Our objective is to make the VITA site a portal for working families to access a wide-range of economic supports and asset-building services.
Carter Elliott is the Campaign Manager for the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign, a project of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. He is a 2005 Tax Credit Outreach Train-the-Trainer participant.