Free Tax Prep Chronicles: The Importance of a Trusted Messenger - United Ways of California

Free Tax Prep Chronicles: The Importance of a Trusted Messenger

Monday, April 1, 2024

Read time: 4 minutes

An essential part of free tax prep work is building trust—trust in our services as well as in our organization as a whole. Over the years, United Ways of California has continued to establish trust in California’s communities by ensuring that our values and actions are aligned. This includes:

Community members are more receptive to programs when they hear about them from people and organizations they trust. When we work with trusted messengers to conduct tax education and outreach, we see how those relationships ultimately result in program participation.

The Importance of a Trusted Messenger

The trusted messenger plays a critical role in our free tax prep program. Initially, education and outreach may look like fliers, social media posts, or events. But the reality is that these means alone are not enough to change behavior. Our work has proven that a trusted messenger is the key ingredient in ensuring a program’s success. This is particularly true for our ITIN program.

An ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) helps people who are not eligible for a Social Security Number file their taxes and could help get them access to cash credits like the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) and Young Child Tax Credit.

While not everyone with an ITIN is undocumented, there can be a fear that comes along with the ITIN application process. Whether it’s fear of the government, families being separated, or the unknown. Oftentimes getting someone to apply for an ITIN takes multiple conversations, relationship building, and an immense amount of trust.

Before taking action on something like applying for an ITIN, community members—particularly those who are undocumented—need to know you are being authentic and that you truly have their best interests at heart. For those who are concerned about their immigration status or who come from countries where they could not trust the government, government programs may seem suspicious. That is why it is so important to partner with local organizations who know those communities the best and are building those relationships year-round.

Meet Community Advocate and Trusted Messenger Marta Gonzalez

Marta Gonzalez is a community organizer from One LA. She works with community members through religious-based institutions across Los Angeles County. Marta also has a personal connection to California immigrant communities.

“I come from a family of immigrants. My parents came here from El Salvador, and I have family members that are undocumented, that have ITIN numbers,” Gonzalez shared.

One LA joined the movement led by United Ways of California and our partners to expand the CalEITC eligibility to include ITIN filers, and they have been part of the work outreaching to potential ITIN filers ever since.

“When ITIN filers became eligible for state tax credits, we knew that the hard work really started at that point, because so many people didn’t know about these tax credits,” Gonzalez said.

Results came, but not overnight. One LA started in places community members already trusted and had relationships with, like schools and community centers, and they went back year after year. Community members went from politely listening to Gonzalez, to remembering her face, to then asking for a list of VITA sites in their area. It has taken years of relationship building, patience, empathy, and meeting community members where they are.

“When you’re talking to people who may be undocumented, there needs to be a lot of trust-building that happens to help them believe that this is in their best interest,” Gonzalez shared. “It wasn’t until maybe year three that we really got traction with community members.”

The Payoff and Next Steps

Now, four years after ITIN filers became eligible for tax credits, our California United Way network has continued to see how the role of the trusted messenger is paying off. In 2023, we processed 187% more ITIN applications than the year before. All United Way free tax prep partners are also going through the Certified Acceptance Agent process to help streamline the process for ITIN applicants in their communities. Our network remains eager to continue to grow support for ITIN applicants and ITIN tax filers to support this group in accessing valuable credits they are entitled to—and we know trusted messengers, including local United Ways and other community organizations like One LA, will continue to play a critical role in this work.

Learn more about applying for an ITIN.

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 in your backyard.

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