Several different entities are available to help you make your VITA program successful and ensure that is the best it can be. Working with a coalition helps stretch scarce resources that all partners bring to the project, and each entity plays a unique role. See below for the major players. Your specific program may involve other entities, as well.
The coordinating organization for a VITA program provides overall leadership and ensures that all the other players meet their obligations and have the resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities. The take responsibility for identifying a site for tax preparation; recruiting volunteers and partner organizations; scheduling and arranging site coordinator and volunteer training; procuring TaxWise software, equipment and supplies; arranging or providing technical and tax law support throughout the season; compiling and analyzing data at key points; and preparing a final report for partners, supporters and funders.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (http://www.irs.gov/) plays a key role because VITA operates under their auspices and they write the rules that other players must follow. The IRS Stakeholder, Partnerships, Education and Communication (SPEC) unit handles the Outreach and Education function of the IRS Wage and Investment Division. Each VITA site is assigned a relationship manager whose job it is to work with the coordinating organization to procure TaxWise software, provide the materials needed by volunteers and clients, act as a liaison and troubleshooter with the IRS, and provide certificates and support for recognizing volunteers. If your VITA program has multiple tax preparation sites, you may work with more than one SPEC relationship manager. IRS compliance officers make unannounced visits to some VITA sites to ensure that all required notifications are in place, volunteers are following the rules, and sites have adequate quality assurance protocols in place.
The National Community Tax Coalition (NCTC) (http://tax-coalition.org/) is a national network dedicated to strengthening economies, building communities and improving lives through tax assistance and asset building activities that produce financial security, protect families, and promote economic justice. They receive support from financial institutions and foundations. They are committed to advocating for federal policy changes that increase tax fairness and advance the financial security of all working families. NCTC provides policy resources, program tools and skill building opportunities for site managers and volunteers. Each year, the NCTC sponsors a conference where VITA managers and volunteers from all over the country come together to share best practices.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) (http://www.cbpp.org/) is a national nonprofit that conducts research and does analysis to help shape public debates over proposed budget and tax policies and to help ensure that policymakers consider the needs of low-income families and individuals in these debates. They also develop policy options to alleviate poverty. The CBPP provides free Earned Income Tax Credit and other outreach materials in 21 languages and makes it available on their website. The CBPP distributes thousands of practical EITC outreach kits to individuals and groups each year. They also bring groups of local leaders together each year and provide training and outreach materials to help them lead successful outreach campaigns in their own communities.
The VITA Program (http://www.irs.gov/individuals/article/0,,id=107626,00.html) offers free tax help to low to moderate-income (generally, $49,000 and below) people who cannot prepare their own tax returns.The clients are the most important players in a VITA program. Community volunteers may focus on those who qualify for special credits, such as Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled, or they may focus on specific groups (e.g., people who speak English as a second language). As long as clients meet the income criteria for VITA, most sites usually serve them when possible, but some sites focus more narrowly on a specific group of people (e.g., only those who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit). To clearly communicate to the community, it is important for VITA staff and volunteers to identify specifically the clients they will target. Steering committee members for your coalition should work together to select the target groups.
Without volunteers, there would be no Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. In addition to tax preparation and electronic filing of returns, volunteers fill several other roles. All roles are important, and not every volunteer will be able to or feel comfortable with preparing taxes. VITA sites need managers, greeters, screeners, tax preparers, quality assurance volunteers, educators (if that service is provided), and volunteers who are willing to do outreach and promotion (e.g., working with local businesses or agencies to make referrals, distributing flyers, talking with the media). Some sites dedicate a volunteer to providing snacks for other volunteers (and sometimes clients) or monitoring children who must come along during tax preparation. No matter what volunteers do, recognize them and acknowledge that ALL functions are critical to the smooth operation of a site. When resources permit, consider providing small stipends or gas cards for volunteers who must travel to the site. To recruit volunteers, work with your steering committee and partners. Consider college students, former VITA clients, retired teachers or accountants, social service agencies, and service organizations in the community. Part of your promotion efforts should be focused on recruiting volunteers.
VITA programs operate at their best when they are supported by a broad coalition of businesses, community groups and individuals. For large programs, a statewide or multi-county coalition may be necessary. Even when local VITA programs are part of a broader coalition, however, they can still benefit from forming a coalition within the community.
The most important reason for building a coalition is that VITA programs take resources to
operate. Resources take many forms. The most obvious is funding, but strong programs need more than that. They need strong, committed volunteers to run day-to-day operations; partners who can contribute in-kind resources like supplies, equipment and a facility; technical assistance for site set-up and ongoing computer support; experienced trainers who can help provide volunteers with the in-depth tax knowledge and computer skills they need to be successful; technical and tax law support throughout the tax season; program administrators; and site managers to oversee volunteers, promote the program and respond to client needs.
Evaluate the success of the coalition. Make improvements as needed. Your success depends on public relations. The most critical component in public relations is relationships and the ability to partner with other organizations on critical aspects of the program.
It is coalition networks that sustain any program. Networks are social, political, economic,
civic & professional. Networks are a true resource. We get more done through coalition networks than through any other resource. An effective coalition will identify all resources in the community to maximize influence and your program’s value to the community. Coalition work
can be confusing and sometimes messy, but the relationships you build will pay off for the longer term.
Think outside the box
How to recruit volunteers
Where to recruit volunteers
Propensity to steal
Should you pay?
Many people are need to operate a VITA site. Volunteers have different goals and desires of what they want to receive from a VITA site. They also have varying personalties and interact in different ways with clients. Knowing the different roles in a VITA site will help you determine the best fit among the several roles a volunteer can play.
These roles are meant to standardize the experience of clients at a VITA site. However, they can be adapted to fill the need at your site. For example, you may not have enough people to have a screener, so some of that function may have to be combined with the Greeter or left to the Tax Preparer.
This quick overview provides a glimpse of the free tax site from the client's perspective. Each position will be covered more in depth in the later sections.
When a client first arrives at a VITA site, they are met by the Greeter. They receive an intake sheet with basic questions required for tax preparation (name, address, birthdate, etc...). Once the intake sheet is completed, the Screener interviews the client and reviews their intake sheet to determine if the client's taxes can be prepared at the VITA site. Clients with overly complex tax returns and incomplete paperwork may be turned away or referred to another VITA provider. Once the screener has determined that the return meets the guidelines for the site, the Tax Preparer then works with the client to prepare the tax return, asking questions when more information is needed. Once the return is prepared, the client then progresses onto the Quality Assurance Specialist. The QAS checks the return for inaccuracies and mistkes made by the Tax Preparer. The Educator then completes the process with the client by answering any basic financial questions the client may have and providing some basic education materials for later perusal. Overseeing this process is the Site Manager; they manage the flow of clients and oversee the flow of clients.
The last two roles, Program Coordinator and Evaluator, do not necessarily work in the site, but they are integral in making sure the sites runs smoothly and identifying problems early.
The Greeter is the first friendly face a client sees upon entering a VITA site. This volunteer often sets the tone of the client's experience as the first represenative of the VITA site. The Greeter's main role is to provide the client with an intake sheet and address any questions the client may have. The clients' questions are not always tax related; more often, clients ask about the restrooms, days and hours of operation, the wait time for tax preparation, and other non tax topics. For this reason, someone more focused on people who does not desire to work with taxes may desire this position. The Greeter also acts as a gatekeeper. In a VITA site, especially as the season progresses, you may have clients returning to your site. Clients may need their taxes amended, either from the site's mistake or their lack of information (they forgot a w2), or they may be coming back to finish their tax preparation (oftentimes entering some small piece of information to complete a return). A greeter can prioritize these clients and focus the attention of the site manager to address their issue quickly.
The screener provides a critical function: identifying the clients that cannot have their returns completed at the site. These clients fall into two categories: clients who have incomplete information and clients whose returns are too complicated for a VITA site. If the client is only missing a small bit of information that has a small impact on the return, then it might be prudent to have the client sit down with the preparer and complete as much of the return as possible. If the client is missing a large amount of information, then the benefit from preparing the return now is small as conditions for credits and deductions can change dramatically with new information. If a client has a return that is too complicated, but this is determined at the very end of the tax preparation process, then a loss is experienced both by the client and the VITA site. The client can be quite upset at having spent a large amount of time waiting and providing information to only find out that their return cannot be completed; their experience can negatively impact your reputation in the community. The loss to the VITA site is the potential tax return that could have been completed.
To adequately review tax documents, the Screener must be familiar with tax law and what forms a VITA site can do. The screener must also be able to interact with clients and ask questions. Oftentimes, if the client has left something blank on an intake sheet, there is an issue that needs to be explored before the client reaches the tax preparer. By asking probing questions, the screener can usually determine if the return can be completed by the site.
The tax preparer actually prepares the return. Based on the good efforts provided by the screener and greeter, only clients with returns within the scope of the tax preparer's knowledge should make it this far. The client will be spending the largest amount of time (other than perhaps waiting in line) with this volunteer. The tax preparer needs to have a balance between working with lax law and the computer and working with the client. The tax preparer needs to have a good grasp of tax law and how to prepare taxes. It is also helpful if the tax preparer knows how to interact with the client and ask probing questions. Combining strong tax knowledge and good customer service skills allows a preparer to ask questions to better understand how the client's situation fits into the optimal tax return.
The Quality Assurance Specialist (QAS) plays an important role in catching errors keeping the quality of prepared returns high. The QAS needs to know tax law well enough to review a return while while looking at the client's intake sheet and financial documents. The QAS double checks important information such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers, birthdates, employer identification numbers (EIN), W2 amounts, names, and more. These are all items that, if entered incorrectly, can delay or reject a return from processing. The QAS uses the Quality Review Checklist on the back of every return to make sure that every return passes an inspection.
The Educator acts as a resource to the client for general personal finance information.
The Site Manager has a varying level of roles. Outside of the VITA site, Site Managers may have to call clients when their returns are rejected, attend meetings, schedule volunteers, and evaluate volunteers. When the VITA site is operational, the site manager adjusts the flow of clients into the site, resolves any problems a client may have with the service, and handles any other difficulties as they arise.
The program coordinator works to manage site managers for several sites and provides overall leadership to the project by coordinating marketing plans and other program wide events or initiatives.
The Evaluator works to ensure that the clients' feedback is being heard and implemented in the sites. Feedback is a gift, but volunteers in a VITA site may be too busy to adequately capture clients' feedback. The evaluator either checks back with clients to ensure their visit was successful or develops and tracks an in site evaluation tool to monitor quality.
If you offer a great service, but never tell anyone about it, then you're not getting to get many (or any) clients. Having a successful marketing plan involves using the resources (usually free) available to you. Depending on your situation, you might decide to use one medium or several to reach your audience. As your VITA site reaches its third or fourth year, you might see a potent form of advertising develop that you have no direct control over: word of mouth.
The most powerful marketing tool available to VITA sites is the least controllable. At the beginning of a VITA site, the client base is small and the amount of people talking about their experience is also small. As the VITA site becomes established and the client base grows, clients with a positive experience will promote the VITA site through interactions with their family, friends, and co workers. In general, customers tend to give more weight to advice given by someone in their close network compared to traditional forms of advertising. However, VITA sites have only indirect control of people's feedback. If the client's experience is unpleasant (long lines, mistakes on the return, rude volunteers, etc...), the feedback shared by your clients may be negative. The best counter to negative word of mouth is to run a quality site that quickly addresses problems encountered by the client. Followups with unhappy clients can also help lessen the negative word of mouth generated by unhappy clients .
Depending on the targeted audience, traditional media may be a great way to promote a VITA site. Traditional media includes television, radio, magazines, and newspapers. Depending on cost, these methods may be a great way of reaching clients about the VITA site. Instead of buying advertising directly, traditional media providers may want to produce a story about the VITA site. These interview or information requests often arrive early in the tax season, Jan 15- Feb 1, or late in the season, April 1-15. Interviewers will often ask about changes to the tax law, what people should know, how does a VITA site work, etc... As a promoter of the VITA site, be sure to mention the hours of operation, the location of the VITA site, and what phone number to call for more info.
Putting posters up around the community is low tech, but visibility in high traffic areas or locations where clients tend to linger can provide large visibility. If your poster has a tearoff section where clients can take a copy of your times, location, and contact info with them, then the poster serves not only to physically provide clients with your info, but also signals to other potential clients that the poster has interested some people by the number of tearoff sections missing.
Inserts are similar to posters, but they are delivered to the client in their monthly statement from their credit union, paycheck stub, or other standard delivered item. They do not have a tearoff section, and the insert usually highlights the partnership between the sending agency and the VITA site. Such joint marketing efforts can help new VITA sites build some credibility in the community with the endorsement of established community agencies.
This broad category can include small town newspapers, church bulletins, monthly community newsletters, and other regular, local publications. Similar to inserts, being mentioned in a local publication lends some credibility from the organization publishing the newsletter. The publication could include an interview with the Program Coordinator of the VITA site, customer testimonials, site times and locations on the local calendar, and other useful information (e.g. what to bring to the VITA site).
While social media represents an important promotion opportunity, Program Coordinators should assess the impact of promotion through social media on the VITA site’s target audiences. Even if the impact is low among potential clients, promotion through social media still might be useful to catch the interest of potential funders, partners, volunteers, or members of the traditional media.
Social media includes Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Twitter announcements, and other services. Be sure to include a photo, short description, and instructions to find more info. Financial services on these sites are often targeted by scammers, so be sure to be open about the VITA service. Providing a web link to your organization might help people distinguish between your VITA operations and the scammers.
VITA sites could not operate without trained personnel. From the site manager to the greeter, all volunteers interacting with clients and the general public need to be trained. Training for volunteers should include not only the obvious instruction on tax law and the operation of tax preparation software, but also critical training on site operations and customer service. This chapter also covers the timeline for training and the methods of training available.
This timeline for training does not include the prep time required for trainings.
The IRS requires that all volunteers working in a tax site to be trained in tax law. The IRS tax law training is separated into three ascending competency levels: Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. Volunteers certify at the appropriate level by learning the appropriate tax law and passing a multiple choice/fill in the blank exam. Each ascending level of certification requires passing the previous version with at least an 80% score on the previous exam.
The Basic level of certification is the most comprehensive. It covers the essential tax topics in order to prepare any return. These tax topics include filing status, dependent exemptions, income, adjustments, standard deductions, calculation of tax, refundable credits, nonrefundable credits, and much more. Generally, this is the largest certification in terms of material and exam size. The Basic exam also includes a quality review of a tax return that has already been prepared. The Basic exam must be passed with a score of 80%. All volunteers must pass at least Basic.
The Intermediate certification covers completion of returns from wage earners, clients who receive pension income, itemized deductions, Schedule C-EZ for small businesses/independent contractors, and other more complex topics. The Intermediate exam must be passed with a score of 80%. Quality Assurance Specialists, volunteers that double check returns before filing, must be certified at the advanced level.
The Advanced certification covers the completion of the full scope of returns. Volunteers must be certified in both Basic and Intermediate before being certified in Advanced. Topics covered in this course include capital gains/losses, complex pension issues, mortgage forgiveness, and other complex tax situations. The Advanced exam must be passed with a score of 80%.
The IRS provides four more certifications that apply to specific cases: Military, Puerto Rico, International, and Foreign Student. Most VITA sites are not required to certify in these extra courses, but sites may choose to have certain volunteers specialize if a need for additional certifications is identified within a community.
The Military certification applies to returns prepared for members of the Armed Forces, Reserve, and National Guard. Certification in Military requires certification in both Basic and Intermediate. Topics covered include combat pay, military employee business expense, moving expenses, and other issues specific to members of the Armed Forces, Reserve, or National Guard.
The Puerto Rico certification level is for preparing returns for U.S. citizens who are bona fide residents of Puerto Rico during the tax year and who receive income from sources outside Puerto Rico and/or receive income as a civilian or military employee of the U.S. Government in Puerto Rico. Income received from Puerto Rico sources is not subject to U.S. income tax. Because some income is exempt, a part of the itemized deductions or a part of the standard deduction on the return must be allocated to that exempt income.
The International certification is generally the Advanced course with special emphasis on international tax law for nonmilitary U.S. residents living outside the U.S., especially those served by U.S. Embassies and Consulates or other areas under the VITA/TCE. This test includes the Foreign Income Exclusion and Foreign Tax Credit
The Foreign Student certification involves identifying between resident and non resident aliens for tax purposes, determining the requirement to file, the applicability of tax treaties, and other related topics. Generally, this certification involves preparing returns for students from other countries that are attending a college or university in the U.S.
The IRS VITA program currently requires use of the TaxWise software program either online or in its desktop form. There is no formal training or certification for TaxWise. However, volunteers cannot be expected to prepare returns without some form of training on the TaxWise software.
Since there is no formal training, instructors can train volunteers in TaxWise alongside tax law training. This combination of training provides volunteers a chance to immediately practice what they have learned and helps encourage learning. Specifically, volunteers that are working to pass the certification tests can complete the required tax preparation practical cases using the TaxWise software.
Site operations training involves teaching the volunteers how a site functions. This includes setup before each session of tax preparation, the actual tax preparation session, and the shutdown procedures at the end of every session. Training is best provided in three distinct sessions: In Classroom Instruction, Site Walkthrough, and Client Practice.
In training for volunteers, some time should be allocated to training volunteers on how the site operates. Classroom instruction time should be spent touching briefly on how your site operates. More time can be spent when you do a walkthrough of the site to talk about specific operations; also, site operations might be different for each of your sites. There are plenty of opportunities within the normal tax law and TaxWise trainings to reference site operations. These small instructions help volunteers understand how the whole tax preparation operation works without detracting from tax law or tax software training.
Providing volunteers with a site walkthrough allows them to better understand the work flow of a volunteer tax site. In addition, volunteers learn unique characteristics of their site that impact tax preparation.
A site walkthrough should cover three distinct time periods within the site: setup for each session before the clients arrive, the actual operation of the site with clients, and the shutdown procedures at the closing of every site. An example of each of the three walkthroughs is in the appendix.
Volunteers can also benefit from trial runs through the site operations process. These trial runs can involve volunteers acting as clients interacting with other volunteers at the site. However, a better alternative might be to have actual clients come into your site before the tax season opens. These might be clients from previous years, clients from the family and friends of volunteers, or clients from another source. Regardless, these clients should be aware that the volunteers are sharpening their skills by preparing these returns before the site officially opens. Quality should not suffer for these clients, but the time to prepare a return may be greater as volunteers spend more time checking their work and building confidence.
Customer Service Training
Training for tax preparation immediately brings tax law and tax software training to mind. However, the most important training may be regarding how to treat customers with respect and dignity, especially while dealing with unruly clients. Volunteers with poor customer service skills can harm the site’s reputation and word of mouth more than a volunteer with poor tax preparation skills. There are steps in place within the tax software and at the site (QAS) to capture tax prep errors. Customer service mistakes are sometimes irreparable and can be harder to catch.
There are three different ways to deliver training. Generally, face to face is the best option, but limitations on volunteer time, space, and equipment may dictate that volunteers train another way.
Training volunteers face to face provides the instructor with instant feedback on how well volunteers are learning the material presented. This allows the instructor to change the presentation to suit the needs of the volunteers. The instructor also has the flexibility to answer questions and provide quick one on one help where needed.
Face to face training can also include training via video or web conference. These methods allow for volunteers to see the instructor and ask questions, but the instructor receives less feedback about how well the volunteers are learning. However, in a large statewide program, this can provide broad training coverage without large amounts of travel spending.
Face to face training often requires both the paper reference materials and computer access to be successful.
Link N Learn is the IRS online training website. The site is divided into two parts: learning modules and the external certification exam website. The learning modules allow volunteers to step through the tax law content at their own pace. The content is also separated into the three main categories: Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. The training modules are not setup in the same way as the certification exams. Volunteers wanting to certify at the Advanced stage should take the Advanced Course; volunteers do not have to train through the Basic and Intermediate courses, as the Advanced includes that material in its training module.
The second website, the external certification exam website, provides a place for volunteers to take the course online. The online exams have the same scenarios as the printed materials, but the questions sometime differ slightly. Once volunteer register with the website, they can certify through the external website even if they are taking a face to face training or they using the printed self study materials. Often, instructors will incorporate the external website into their training for two reasons. First, the exam certification website provides a place for students to take the exam and have it scored without relying on the instructor. Second, the Volunteer Agreement Form (VAF) is populated with the required information, so it is quite easy for volunteers to print out the form and provide it to their instructor and/or their site manager.
The printed self study materials generally include Publication 4491 Student Training Guide, Pub 4491-W Comprehensive Problems and Exercises Workbook, Form 6744 Volunteer Assistor’s Test/Retest, and Publication 4012 Volunteer Resource Guide. These printed materials walk the volunteer through the tax law required for the Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced tax law. These materials are also helpful during face to face training and Link N Learn online training. The publication 4012 is especially helpful, and volunteers should be encouraged to review this pub any time they have a question.
Not only do site locations need to be safe, clients need to feel that the site location is safe. Also, sites must take into consideration the safety of their volunteers as well. Generally, VITA sites should follow basic rules that all retail stores follow. Locations should be well lit. The site should not be isolated from the flow of people or traffic on the street. The location of the site should be well marked from the parking lot or other transportation point (bus stop) to the front of the site. Signage should be clearly marked from the street with hours and other info, including phone number. Inside the site, exits should be clearly marked. Important phone numbers should be kept near the phone.
VITA sites deal with sensitive information in order to prepare tax returns. In addition to feeling safe at the site, clients need to feel that their privacy while at the site is protected and their data will remain confidential once they leave. The IRS has provided Publication 4299 Privacy and Confidentiality -A Public Trust to help VITA sites maintain a safe environment. Every year, site coordinators should review this publication to ensure that every site and its procedures meet the requirements within publication 4299. Generally, the principles outlined in pub 4299 revolve around the security of client information once the client leaves. However, site coordinators should also take care to make sure that the client’s privacy is respected while at the site.
Ideally, all VITA sites should be accessible. However, circumstances may require a VITA site to operate in a facility that is not completely accessible. In this situation, site coordinators should have a clear policy outlining what to do when a client arrives at the site that cannot be served. Referring the client to another site, making an accommodation to bring the tax preparation operation to the client, or having the client designate to work through an intermediary might all be viable options.
VITA sites must have a few key qualities in order for the clients to have a quality experience. In general, these features include good parking, Internet access, a mailable address, staff during business hours, phone, storage space, and location.
Parking needs to be close to the site and clearly marked. Clients also tend to dislike metered parking because of the uncertainty regarding tax preparation time. Taxpayers generally have an idea of how long return preparation will be; however, complications or changes in the law can cause clients to keep ‘feeding’ the parking meter causing unhappiness. With regard to parking, also consider the impact of VITA clients on other services or agencies in the area. If clients of other agencies or businesses complain about the lack parking, those businesses might complain to the VITA site’s landlord or the police. If parking might be an issue, talking beforehand with potentially affected agencies may help curb problems.
Internet access is required to send efiles to the IRS. Also, Internet access is important for research into tax problems. If a client has a particular problem that requires more in depth research, consulting the in depth IRS publication related to that topic might be the best step. Finally, clients may use the Internet access to research answers related to questions about accounts or prior year tax actions.
Clients are using the Internet to generate directions from their starting point to the VITA site. Be sure that the VITA site has an address that is easily findable by the online mapping systems. Also, clients sometimes send feedback or additional information through the mail. Having one address to collect mail from is much easier than multiple.
Clients sometimes misread advertising or misheard from others the times the VITA site is open. A location that has staff during normal business hours can provide information to clients about when the times are open. Sometimes, clients only know the location of the VITA site and not the times. Having someone on-site helps clients understand when the VITA site is open and strengthens the client’s belief in the VITA site. Just having a sign on the door may discourage some clients from coming back.
The amount of clients with mobile phones is increasing, but there are still some that do not have mobile phones. Having a phone at the site provides clients with a way to contact others (family, friends, rides, financial institutions) without using a volunteer, site manager, or client’s cell phone. Also, clients may desire to call the site when it is open to ask tax or site related questions.
VITA site supplies include computers, computer equipment, printers, paper, IRS pubs, pens, clipboards, etc. A site with local storage relieves some stress from the site coordinator and volunteers. If sensitive information is being stored on-site, then the storage must be secured with a locked cabinet or door.
The VITA site might meet every other criteria, but the location is not ideal. When picking a place for a VITA site, think about how people travel. Is the site within walking distance of the bus or other transit lines. Do people normally travel past the site during operating hours? How distant is the location from your potential clients whose income is below $50,000?
Keeping client information private and secure is crucial to the operation of a VITA site. Client information includes the electronic information stored about a client’s return, the intake sheet and other paper documents with sensitive information (W2s), and the client interview itself. Volunteer information should also be kept confidential. Finally, the most common security problem at a VITA site is discussed
Electronic records are an easy target for theft. It is relatively easy to copy information, and it is hard to identify when theft has occurred. Client information stored electronically should have several safeguards in place: encryption, networked solutions, and limited knowledge.
Electronic media is usually readable by nearly any computer. Hard drives can be removed from computers and easily read by other computers. One way of protecting against this copying of information is to use encryption. Using encryption involves installing using software that scrambles the data on the computers hard disks. The data can only be unscrambled if the special password or key is provided to unlock the data. To anyone without the key, the data is useless; it just looks like random garbage. Common sources of encryption are Microsoft’s BitLocker, built into Windows 7, and TrueCrypt, an open source encryption program. These programs should be installed and activated only by system administrators. Encryption should not be enabled on live data, until the process has been tested.
Another way to minimize potential data loss is to network TaxWise clients together. When TaxWise is installed into a networked environment, the sensitive tax information is stored only on one computer called the ‘server’. This increases security because the theft of every computer but the server does not cause data loss. However, if the server computer fails, the all data is lost. Care should be taken to maintain secure backups of the server computer.
A simple way to protect client information is to restrict the amount of people that know the usernames and passwords to access the computers. Volunteers will need access to computers and TaxWise, but these computers and programs can be logged into before the volunteer sits at the workstation. Restricting the knowledge helps protect against volunteers that are tempted to steal computer hardware. Also, volunteers may be less likely to prepare returns outside of normal site operating hours without access to the hardware and TaxWise.
The irony of efiling quickly becomes apparent as a VITA site generates paper that must be secured. For almost every return filed, a form 8879 must be kept by the VITA site for three years. W2s must be kept for one year. Intake sheets must be kept with the W2s. All these documents have sensitive information: Names, SSNs, birth dates, employers, etc... Because of their sensitive nature, all documents need to be secured in locked filing cabinets behind locked doors. When documents are being transported, be aware of where the papers are at all times. If the person who is transporting the documents leaves their vehicle, make sure that the papers are not in the open. Basically, use common sense when handling sensitive documents. Once documents are no longer required to be kept, they should be shredded.
The client interview is not always considered by volunteers as a time to be concerned about privacy, but there is reason to make sure that the client’s privacy is protected. Client information needs to be kept secure at all times. Tax preparer workstations should provide some protection against other clients or volunteers overhearing each other and some visual protection for client documents as well. Audio protection may include having soft music or a television on in the background to keep clients or volunteers from overhearing conversations. Cubicles can provide protections against people espying documents, but not every VITA site can afford cubicles. Another option involves rearranging a room so that everyone faces a wall, so client and volunteer’s backs are to each other, keeping people focused on their own screens and paperwork.
While a VITA site should spend a great deal of effort keeping its client information safe, the site should also focus on keeping volunteer information safe. The form 13615 Volunteer Agreement Standards of Conduct should be kept in a secure place. This form has a volunteer’s address, phone number, and other info.
The most common problem at a VITA site: writing down passwords either on equipment or on sticky notes stuck to equipment. A passwords written down next to the item it is meant to secure is not protecting anything. Anytime a password is written down, there is a chance that the password will be stolen along with the laptop/desktop locked with that password. Don’t write passwords down. If you do write passwords down, do not keep them close to what the password is securing.
Keeping a VITA site at a high level of quality should be a goal of every volunteer and site coordinator. A simple way of maintaining high quality is to be always assessing current procedures and figure out resolutions to keep increasing quality.
Simply stated, Assessment is being receptive to finding problems in the tax preparation process. Two easy ways of assessing quality are auditing completed returns and listening to people
The two words audit and taxes usually conjure images of being investigated by the IRS. For a VITA site, auditing simply describes looking at what the VITA site has accomplished and checking to make sure that the returns are prepared right. If the returns are prepared correctly, no action may be necessary. If the returns are prepared incorrectly, then first, the return needs to be corrected and the taxpayer may need to be contacted. Second, the error needs to be logged and the cause determined.
Some returns are more likely to be prepared incorrectly, because there are more choices that the preparer has to make. Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) eligible returns are often prepared incorrectly because the preparer checks the wrong box in the software or does not check the correct box. Single parents may receive the EITC, but the preparer often forgets to mark the client’s filing status as Head of Household. Returns that have W2s with information in boxes other than the expected (1-6); often, the Advanced Earned Income Tax Credit and the dependent care benefits boxes are not correctly entered.
Every site will have rejected returns. Rejected returns are not necessarily a good indicator of site quality. Returns can be rejected because the client provided bad information or another taxpayer incorrectly claimed a child’s exemption. However, some rejected returns are the fault of the VITA site: mispelled names, incorrectly typed social security numbers, mistyped birthdates, etc...
Random checks are less likely to find errors, but can often provide a useful idea of who your clients are. Also, returns that do not normally fit the likely incorrect return profile can sometimes be found through random checks.
All feedback is a gift, even feedback that you might think is useless. The best way to receive feedback is to solicit it from the people most involved in the VITA site: clients and volunteers. As a bonus, clients and volunteers that are asked about their opinions feel more invested in the site and have a more positive attitude regarding the site, helping the VITA site’s word of mouth advertising.
Clients have the greatest investment in your VITA site; they are entrusting their sensitive information to you in order to prepare their tax return. The clients are spending their time coming to your site instead of preparing the return online or with another preparer. So listening to your clients offers the best opportunity to determine how the most invested people feel about your site.
While clients have the most invested, the VITA site volunteers have the most experience working with clients and the site processes. Volunteer insights can help revise procedures, clear bottlenecks, and make the client experience better. Also, volunteers can share insights with each other and find answers to common problems.
The assessment process is ongoing and never ends. However, the assessment process is only the first half of continuous policy improvement. Resolution describes the process of implementing lessons and ideas learned during the assessment phase. There are some common resolution techniques to fix discovered problems.
If the assessment process reveals a widespread lack of knowledge of tax law or site processes, then a large, general training for all volunteers might best resolve the issue. When such large trainings are conducted, it is important to focus not on what the volunteers are doing incorrectly, but on the incorrect policy. Focusing on the people can breed resentment, feelings of doubt, and lower self confidence.
During the opening of every VITA site session there is a great opportunity to provide short, targeted reminders about tax law or site processes. These reminders should be short and quick to highlight the important piece of tax law or site process.
Sometimes, a single volunteer struggles in their role at the VITA site. The best remedy to help a single volunteer might be to offer private sessions. These private sessions may be more comfortable for the volunteer, as he or she might be more open to asking questions and less worried about appearing less compentent to his or her peers.
There may not be enough time during the tax season to implement every idea learned through the assessment process. Site managers should keep track of what is learned through the assessment process and, after the tax season, think about how to change initial trainings to best implement lessons learned. Deferring the implementation of ideas might be best for ideas that appear late in the season or would be a major, uncomfortable change for volunteers or clients.
A VITA site offers a great opportunity to provide personal finance education. Low income clients often receive large tax refunds which provides the opportunity to provide financial education when the client has the cash to implement the education. The main opportunities for financial education are workshops, take home packets, client conversations, and referrals to other services.
The category of workshops can be split into pre tax season and post tax season. Pre tax season workshops should focus on preparing clients for the upcoming tax season. Topics covered include what actions clients can take now, what the client needs to bring to the tax site, how tax law is changing, etc... Post tax season workshops can cover traditional financial planning topics: budgeting, debt, investing, etc...Post season workshops should focus on the needs of the clients identified in the tax site.
Clients may be focused solely on tax preparation, so clients may not be receptive to receiving financial education at the site. The take home packet provides some general education that the client might be more receptive to at a later date. The basic take home packet contains general personal finance education applicable to a wide variety of people: budgeting, credit, ways to save money, etc. This packet may be supplemented with education topics specific to the needs of the client. A younger client may be more interested in topics such as home buying, buying a car, landlord tenant rights, etc.
Some VITA sites may have a dedicated personal finance educator. The role of this volunteer is to provide an opportunity for the client to ask personal finance questions. Usually, this volunteer interacts with the client toward the end of the tax prep process. At this point, the client has built a large amount of trust in the VITA site, and the client is more open to asking questions and receiving education. Clients also feel more comfortable asking their tax preparer questions about personal finance. Providing volunteers basic personal finance training may be helpful when clients ask questions.
Organizations that sponsor VITA sites may also engage in other community outreach. Often, VITA site clients do not represent the traditional client of the sponsoring organizations. This difference offers an opportunity to reach new clients that may not be aware of all the services offered by the sponsoring organization. Providing information about all the services offered by the sponsoring organization to VITA site clients may increase client loyalty to that organization.
There are several levels of support for VITA site volunteers. While these levels of support are implemented or referred to during training, volunteers may need to be reminded about the levels of support available to them both for tax law and tax software support. This section covers the escalating levels of support available to a volunteer.
These two IRS publications can answer the majority of the tax law questions. The pub 4012 Volunteer Resource Guide is a tabbed resource for quick information retrieval. If the pub 4012 does not completely answer volunteer’s question, then the pub 17 will most likely provide a definitive answer. Both of these publications are useful, but may be hard to use without some training. Implementing the use of pub 17 and pub 4012 throughout IRS tax law and tax software training can help volunteers become more familiar with the resources easily at hand
If a volunteer has a hard time finding the answer in the IRS publications, then the next best option is to ask a fellow volunteer. The other volunteer may have encountered the problem or question in their own experience, or the other volunteer may have a better knowledge of where to find the answer in the IRS pubs.
Often seen by the volunteer as the last resort, the site manager may be called upon to answer a question or solve a problem.
If the site manager is unable to answer the question, then there is another level of support: the IRS VITA hotline. Printed on the back of every pub 4012 is the number of a dedicated toll free hotline just for VITA sites. This number is only for VITA sites so do not provide it to clients.
If the IRS hotline is not able to answer the question or solve the problem, then the site manager may want to call other site managers or other experienced volunteers for help. If even they cannot help, then the client may have to be referred to a paid preparer. This may sound like defeat, but the VITA site would be better served by a client getting the correct advice from another preparer than to have the VITA site just guess on an answer or solution.
At the end of the tax season, most sites close up shop. Some sites stay open, but at a much lower level of operation; VITA sites, similar to other preparers, can still efile until October 15. Whichever path is chosen, there are some common issues that need to considered and dealt with.
VITA sites have to keep a considerable amount of paper with a varying term. Form 8879 must be kept for three years. Other forms and sensitive paperwork must be kept for one year. Storage should be locked and access to the storage should be limited.
Clients lose their paperwork. Clients find another W2 and need an amended return. Clients find out that they shouldn’t have claimed that dependent. The client may have a problem from a prior year. The first place a client calls when there is a tax problem is the VITA site. The management of the VITA site should have some clear policies on how to handle these common situations. Can copies be printed and mailed? Will someone handle amended returns? Does someone have the time to meet with the client and provide prior year help? Clients share their experiences, so precedents can be easily set; however, if some clients are treated differently, that will hurt the reputation of the VITA and hurt turnout in the following year.
Clients and volunteers may not feel invested in the VITA site space. No one likes to cleanup other people’s messes, but leaving a mess may hurt the relationship of the owner of the donated space. When leaving the VITA site’s physical space for the season, make sure that the space is clean and in the same or better condition than when the VITA site first occupied it.
Computers will need to be stored in a secure location. The sponsoring organization may decide to use the computers during the time between tax seasons, but there is a risk that the computers could contract a virus or other malady that would not be found before the tax season started. Also, office supplies may need to be secured for next tax season.
Recognition is the VITA site’s last impression stakeholders, volunteers, and others will have before planning begins for the next season. The next chapter is devoted to making sure the impression is a positive one.
Recognizing volunteers can be split into two categories based on time: during the tax season and the volunteer recognition ceremony after the tax season. At either time, recognition helps reward positive behaviors and build volunteer ownership in the VITA site.
One of the best methods for recognizing volunteers during the tax season is to create a traveling award and provide it to a deserving volunteer at the debriefing after the site closes. The volunteer then gets to display it at their workstation the next time the site is in session. The physical award does not need to be elaborate. For example, the traveling award may be the “Gold Pub 17”; this is simply a pub 17 that has a cover painted gold. Awards like this may seem trivial, but a simply standing out from your peers is often reward enough.
Recognition can also be provided on the spot by recognizing and praising volunteers in front of their peers and clients for good performance. This spontaneous praise helps build confidence in the volunteer and the client often increases their trust in the VITA site.
The volunteer recognition ceremony at the end of the tax season provides two important functions. First, the ceremony provides an opportunity to recognize everyone that contributed to the VITA site from the site manager and volunteers to those who contributed space and/or resources. Second, this is the last chance until the start of the training for next tax season to make a strong positive impression on your important stakeholders and partners.
Spend some time and resources in making the room special. This can be as simple as providing some balloons on the wall and some streamers across the ceiling. Similar to the traveling gold pub 17, the effort to make it special means more than the actual particulars.
Anyone that contributed something should be at the event. From the person or business that donated the room to the person or business that donated the pens. Recognize everyone that contributed to the VITA site’s success.
Remember that the volunteers provided the greatest asset: their time and talent. Do not get caught up in recognizing everyone so much that the volunteers feel diminished. Spend the most time recognizing them.
Keeping local politicians or other dignitaries appraised of the VITA site’s efforts and accomplishments is important. Often, they can do a great job joining in the recognition of the volunteers. However, long speeches or a long series of short speeches can detract from the volunteer recogntion.
The tax season is over. Relax with your volunteers. This is likely the last chance to interact with the volunteers before the site manager starts calling again in the fall to recruit for the coming season. A positive memory can help override some of the tough tax preparation.
Between the volunteer recognition ceremony and the training for the next tax season, there is a deceptive lull. However, planning for the upcoming tax season should start in July, not that long after the volunteer recognition ceremony.
July may seem too early, but space needs to be reserved, resources need to be applied for/requisitioned. Not everything can be done this early, but some preparations should be made.
Returning volunteers are a great asset as they often require less training than new volunteers. Site managers should contact volunteers well before the tax training; usually returning volunteers are contacted in October.
The most productive activity during this lull may be building the rewarding but time intensive activities. There is little time during the tax season to network and build community ties. During this lull, seek out new partners and new sources for volunteers. Prepping these connections now can make the whole tax season much easier.
Setup the physical location
Put up signs directing clients and helping volunteers
Test computers and printers
Start/log onto computers and start TaxWise
Review roles and expectations with volunteers
Review any tax law changes or concerns with volunteers
Notes: Touching base with the volunteers before the session allows the site coordinator to remind volunteers about important changes, reinforce site procedure, and generally get a better feeling about the strengths and weaknesses of the volunteers working the site. Also, checking the restroom may seem mundane, but clients will expect such service to work; if a restroom is broken, they will also expect the someone at the site to fix the problem or provide a replacement. Dealing with a broken restroom before the tax session starts is much preferable to dealing with it during the busy tax session.
When the site closes, many of the procedures that volunteers used to open the site are reversed.
Send efiles to the IRS
Check the site to make sure that all sensitive matierials are securely locked
Shutdown the computers and TaxWise
Shutdown the physical location
Removeup signs directing clients and helping volunteers
Debrief volunteers about any concerns, questions, and successes
Remind volunteers about the next session
Check off one more successful tax preparation session!