Free Tax Prep Chronicles: Capacity Building Plays an Essential Role in Expanding Free Tax Prep - United Ways of California

Free Tax Prep Chronicles: Capacity Building Plays an Essential Role in Expanding Free Tax Prep

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Read time: 3 minutes

As one of California’s largest California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) subgrantees, United Ways of California helps support the free tax prep network across the state. At a bare minimum, this includes connecting community members with free tax preparation services through our website, But the reality is much more complex than that.

To continue serving a larger number of Californians, community-based organizations need knowledge, expertise, funding, and staff time. This can be a challenge, as running a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program is more than just providing a free tax prep service. VITA program partners are constantly juggling administrative tasks, IRS guidelines and regulations, changing requirements, everchanging volunteer schedules, and community member needs.

Despite these challenges, the California United Way network saw an 11% increase in the number of free tax returns filed in 2023 compared to the previous year. We also saw a 187% increase in ITIN applications processed in 2023 compared to 2022.

So how did we do it?

United Ways of California plays a centralized role in increasing the capacity of our partners across the state to reduce their administrative burden. This means that partners – local United Ways and other community-based organizations investing in financial stability programs – can focus more attention on the important work of directly helping filers. Some things we’ve done in the past six months to help increase capacity across the state include:

  • Developing training materials for VITA sites
  • Streamlining and centralizing administrative processes
  • Facilitating collaboration among VITA providers

Here are some more details about what that work looks like:

Developing Community-Centered Resources and Trainings

  • ITIN Training: English/Spanish interactive training to educate free tax prep partners on how to best assist community members who are eligible for an ITIN.
  • Disability Inclusion Training: Best practices on how to assist community members with a disability.
  • VITA Essentials Guide: Information about how to open and successfully operate a VITA site.
  • Client-Centered Guides and Resources: Self-filing guides, checklists, informational blog posts, a tax calculator, and more.
  • Social Media Collateral: Toolkits, updated quarterly, provide partners with copy, images, and videos to use for both organic and paid social media.

These resources are available to anyone, regardless of affiliation with United Ways of California. Contact us if you would like access to these resources for your VITA site or community.

Centralizing Program Administration So Partners Can Focus on Their Communities

  • VITA Map: We maintain a VITA map that connects clients to free tax prep assistance sites across the state during the tax season as well as during the off-season.
  • Partner Portal: Our one-stop Partner Portal includes a low-cost appointment scheduling system, volunteer management system, resources, collateral, and survey data – all in one easy, convenient place for our partners.
  • Volunteer Training: We train and support partners and volunteers during the entire tax-filing season.
  • Client Intake: Our network handles the entire intake process for incoming clients, allowing partners to focus their attention on just completing returns.
  • Client Hotline: Clients who need additional assistance can get help from a live person in English or Spanish.

Statewide Collaboration

  • Meetings and Work Groups: Partners gather regularly to get the latest updates on free tax prep, share best practices, and lean on each other for support.
  • Statewide Taxes Meeting: Partners from across the state gather in person annually to dive deep into the past tax season and start planning for the upcoming year.

The California Legislature Makes This Possible

Free Tax Preparation Assistance and Education and Outreach program funding play an essential role in the overall health and financial wellbeing of Californians. By providing state funding to trusted local organizations like United Ways of California, we can continue to focus our efforts on increasing partner capacity so that local organizations can do the important task of reaching and serving community members. It’s essential that the $20 million in state funding is included in the state’s budget not only for this year, but for years to come. If we don’t take action in the state budget this year, funding for Free Tax Preparation Assistance and Education and Outreach efforts will be slashed in half by the end of 2024 — severely decreasing our capacity to serve our most vulnerable communities.

Are you a community member who believes in free tax prep assistance? Fill out this quick form to tell California leaders to protect $20M in free tax prep outreach programs.

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