Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites across the country unquestionably felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, because of lockdowns, VITA sites had to shut their doors in the middle of the tax season and prepare to “reopen” virtually ahead of the July 15, 2020, deadline. That virtual work had to continue this year. The lockdowns made it imperative for VITA sites to implement alternative, virtual tax preparation services, recruit volunteers for virtual work and work across coalitions and communities to serve taxpayers. The use of the tax administration system to disburse economic stimulus payments made this work even more important. It also presented a new challenge, especially in underserved communities, where the digital divide may have prevented taxpayers from accessing VITA services or non-filers accessing stimulus payments.
In June 2020, Prosperity Now, with generous support from the Citi Foundation, launched the Technology Fund, which disbursed $300,000 to 38 VITA programs. Grants ranged from $1,000-$15,000 and provided resources to purchase the technology necessary to transition VITA program service delivery models to virtual formats. In addition, Prosperity Now worked with our partner, Code For America, to connect many of these grantees to the GetYourRefund platform; supported 10 programs in implementing alternative services and building coalitions through technical assistance and peer learning calls; and developed a Virtual VITA Toolkit to support VITA programs in offering virtual tax services. Here’s what we learned: T
Updated and Efficient Technology was Key in Reaching Existing and New Clients
While we knew the switch to completely virtual VITA services would be a major challenge to our grantees, we learned that their persistence and problem-solving skills made this transition a success. The Technology Fund Grants that enabled grantees to purchase the equipment and software they needed to be contributed to this success. For example, new and more reliable laptops, computer monitors and tablets allowed volunteers to take home what they needed for the program, work more efficiently with multiple screens and not have to toggle between TaxSlayer, GetYourRefund and other required software and documentation. Additionally, with GetYourRefund and the technology purchases, programs were able to reach clients they had not reached before, including those in more remote locations and without access to transportation and child care that prevented them from using in-person services before the pandemic. We also heard from our grantees that Code for America’s quick work in setting up programs to use GetYourRefund was essential to completing the last filing season.
Building Connections in Quarantine Helped to Reduce Staff Anxiety
Several of our grantees were able to participate in alternative service delivery technical assistance, helping to make the transition much smoother. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Prosperity Now heard via a listening session with our VITA partners that one of the major hurdles in moving to virtual services was not only capacity and access to technology, but the stress and challenges involved in designing a new program mid-season. Our technical assistance participants emphasized that a major factor in their success was connecting with each other, learning that they were not alone and having thought partners to discuss issues and share problem-solving tactics that took some of the stress and pressure off individual VITA program directors and coordinators.
The Digital Divide is a Persistent Issue for Volunteers and Clients Alike
Of course, there was one major obstacle that affected program directors, volunteers and clients alike: the digital divide, including digital literacy and access to technology and the internet. Our grantees shared that volunteers were nervous about doing tax returns virtually because of their discomfort with using new technology and software. Many programs benefit from having older, retired volunteers who might have lower digital literacy or volunteers who may not have access to laptops, monitors and the internet at home. While the technology purchases alleviated some of these concerns for volunteers, we still saw a major drop in volunteers for our grantees, with only 40% continuing to volunteer for the extended season in 2020.
Grantees also shared that clients were skeptical about having their taxes done virtually. First, many were concerned about the security of their information and second, many clients also have low digital literacy and did not have access to technology or the internet. Programs encouraged these clients to find a family member or friend who could help them. But several programs also had to implement drop-off services for their clients and purchase secure document-sharing software. With these solutions, many clients considered the process to be surprisingly easy, yet programs still lost some of their usual in-person clients.
Finally, program staff of the Technology Fund grantees found they were less comfortable with technology than they thought. Before receiving the grants, 89% of grantees felt either very or extremely comfortable with technology. By the end of this grant, only 65% of grantees felt either very or extremely comfortable with technology. We imagine this is because of the amount of hard and stressful work it took to implement virtual services, which amounts to a completely new program design, and less so about their actual digital literacy.
Moving forward, we know that numerous VITA programs will be implementing a hybrid model of in-person and virtual services long into the future. Other organizations would benefit from updated and more efficient technology for their staff and volunteers. To learn more about Alternative VITA Services and to stay informed about future funding and partnership opportunities, join the Taxpayer Opportunity Network today.
Originally posted by Prosperity Now on 2021-07-21 19:00:00