The urge to "give back" by volunteering time and talents to solve local problems is a value deeply embedded in the American psyche, and the societal benefits of volunteerism are well-known. They include strengthened communities, engaged citizens, increased civic responsibility, and significant contributions to the public good. In addition to helping others, the volunteers themselves benefit through increased connection with their fellow community members, expanded skill sets and networking opportunities, and improved social skills and self-confidence. Volunteers often also have increased levels of happiness, reduced incidence of depression, and, in older adults, even a decreased mortality rate.
The advantages to businesses that hire employees with strong volunteer backgrounds may be less well-known. In particular, businesses that hire those who have volunteered in a quasi-professional capacity through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program may recognize substantial benefits.
This column articulates the numerous benefits students, universities, employers, and communities can gain from the VITA program and provides tips on how to start a program, how to recruit and train volunteers, and how to best ensure a successful experience for all constituents.VITA Background
VITA is sponsored by the IRS and various community partners such as the United Way. VITA uses volunteers to prepare and electronically file free low- and middle-income federal individual income tax returns. According to the IRS, nearly 96,000 volunteers prepared over 3.6 million federal income tax returns during the 2014 filing season (see the IRS Tax Volunteers page). Student volunteers at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., and in other university-sponsored VITA programs reinforce classroom learning while gaining practical, professional experience in working with clients that will be useful to them and to their future employers.
These experiences should enable the VITA volunteers to transition more easily to a professional work environment as new hires. In particular, employers can expect to receive some or all of the following benefits from hiring VITA volunteers:
- In this era of increased corporate social responsibility, many businesses desire to be actively engaged in their communities. VITA volunteers, especially those who have volunteered for more than one tax season, have already demonstrated a strong work ethic and a strong sense of civic involvement that may be attractive to prospective employers.
- VITA volunteers go through a structured training and certification program that teaches them not only how to prepare tax returns and how to interact with clients, but also to expect that their work will be reviewed by a site coordinator for quality-control purposes. If problems are discovered through this process, they learn to accept feedback to improve future performance. This commitment to quality service and to accepting feedback is also enhanced by site visits from the IRS regional VITA coordinator and by occasional "secret shopper" visits by IRS personnel.
- VITA volunteers are carefully instructed in the importance of client confidentiality, and they must keep those confidences throughout the tax preparation season and beyond. At Stetson's VITA program, any verified breach of client confidentiality would result in immediate dismissal from the VITA program.
- VITA volunteers also gain confidence and learn the important job skill of documenting their work.
- The ability to recognize when required information is missing is an important business skill, but unfortunately academic education sometimes conditions students to believe that all information needed to solve a problem will be neatly provided to them. VITA volunteers must recognize when information that is needed to prepare a client's return is missing or is problematic, and they must take the initiative to attempt to remedy either situation in a professional manner.
- VITA volunteers begin to perfect their interpersonal skills as they work with a diverse group of clients. They develop the interviewing skills necessary to elicit missing information or to clarify information that is problematic or unclear. They learn to develop a rapport with their clients while retaining a healthy level of professional skepticism.
- While they do not have to wear formal business attire, VITA volunteers must have a professional appearance and must maintain a professional demeanor when dealing with clients. This experience will make the transition to the "real" world easier than it might otherwise be.
- VITA volunteers are trained to prepare income tax returns by carefully following specific flowcharts, guidelines, and instructions. This teaches them the importance of adhering to policies and procedures, and it should accustom them to expect to have and to follow policies and procedures in any new workplace.
- Students are often reluctant to ask questions when they do not understand something, because they fear embarrassment. Similarly, newly hired employees are often reluctant to ask questions because they mistakenly believe that employers expect them to already know everything and to be able to solve any problem on their own. As a result, they often spend many unproductive hours on a problem that could be easily resolved by asking the right question. Asking the right question lets the employee get back to work. VITA volunteers are trained to asked for assistance when they encounter a difficult situation for which their knowledge and other resources are insufficient.
- VITA volunteers have hands-on experience with a professional tax preparation software program (TaxWise). Mastering this software should decrease the learning curve that inevitably results when a new hire attempts to get up to speed with the software his or her new firm uses.
- VITA provides student volunteers with an opportunity to develop and to demonstrate significant leadership skills. Volunteers, especially those who return for a second year, can be trained as site coordinators, assistant site coordinators, or quality reviewers. This teaches them not only to prepare returns, but also to review the work of other volunteer preparers.
Data on VITA Benefits
Many institutions and universities host the VITA program, arguably because of the benefits postulated above, and several have conducted research to identify those benefits. For example, Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah, has served as a VITA site for over 15 years and recently published a document presenting the results obtained from a survey-based study outlining the benefits that accrue to VITA constituents. The study revealed that the VITA experience significantly increased students' interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, as well as students' ability to properly identify and gather relevant information, discard irrelevant information, ask relevant and appropriate questions, and understand the meaning, purpose, and content of information on the tax return (see Boneck, Barnes, and Stillman, "VITA Experiential, Service-Learning, Learned Competencies, and Changed Mindsets," Journal of College Teaching & Learning (2014)). These results suggest that the VITA program successfully develops an array of skills that employers are likely to desire in new hires.
University administration may also see VITA as valuable interaction with the community. For example, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi issues a VITA press release at the start of tax season to announce its participation and the availability, dates, and times of services at multiple community sites, and a VITA press release at the end of tax season, announcing the season's results. An excerpt from a draft of the body of a press release issued at the close of the 2013 tax filing season is below (all numbers are for federal returns since Texas has no state income tax):
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The 2013 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, a joint program between Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, the United Way of the Coastal Bend, the IRS, and other community partners successfully prepared 3,102 tax returns, returning a record $4 million to low and moderate income households.
This year, 49 volunteers served nearly 1,200 hours. Thirty-eight of those volunteers serving more than 795 hours came from Texas A&M—Corpus Christi, with five students/alumni working as site or program coordinators. . . .
In addition, taxpayers and the community benefited from the program. VITA returns yielded more than $1,435,716 in earned income tax credits, which is new money to the Coastal Bend community. . . . The following are summary comparative statistics for 2012 and 2013:
- April 2012–2,543 returns
- April 2013–3,102 returns
- April 2012–Total EITC $1,055,056
- April 2013–Total EITC $1,435,717
- April 2012–Total refunds $3,187,220
- April 2013–Total refunds $4,113,844
In deciding whether to begin participating in VITA, a university might first look at whether it can partner with other local agencies already involved in the program. For example, the United Way is a frequent partner in these programs. In forming partnerships, coalitions often use commitment letters to explicitly outline each partner's responsibilities. A key decision for VITA sites is what services to offer. Sites may decide to either specialize or refuse to do returns in specialized areas such as military returns, returns with foreign income, and taxes for the elderly. Planning for tax season is nearly a year-round process, with most of the time needed during September through May.
Where no local coalition exists, a university might consider organizing one. IRS Publication 4396-A, VITA/TCE Partner Resource Package, gives step-by-step directions for setting up a program.
It helps if there is a commitment to volunteerism or community engagement as a core value of the institution. A process for recruiting, training, and supervising volunteers is also essential as is a commitment to using this opportunity to develop student leaders. And a strong faculty champion is essential for the program to succeed. Following are some lessons learned from the VITA experience at Stetson.
A VITA program cannot function without a substantial group of strongly committed volunteer tax preparers, so finding those volunteers is a necessary precursor to success. Stetson University has a long tradition of encouraging student participation in the DeLand, Fla., community, and this history is confirmed by Stetson's inclusion in the Community Engagement Classification of the Carnegie Foundation. At Stetson, students can choose to earn a Certificate in Community Engagement by taking four units (about 16 credit hours) of community engagement courses, spending 100 hours on community-engaged learning (which could include volunteering for VITA), and writing a capstone essay.
In fact, although the VITA program is directly sponsored by the Accounting Department at the Stetson University School of Business Administration, it is coordinated by the university's Office of Community Engagement (OCE), which assists in recruiting volunteers and coordinating with the United Way as the university's local sponsoring partner. The OCE also provides a student volunteer greeter to assure a warm and consistently welcoming environment for clients.
The VITA program has also been adopted as a service project by the Stetson chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, a business honorary society, as its annual service project, thus providing another major source of volunteers.
Finally, volunteering for VITA is also encouraged by the instructors of the federal income tax classes and by other accounting and business professors.
A VITA program is improved by providing convenient on-site as well as online training. On-site training is desirable because the software volunteers use can be tricky. Also some students feel more comfortable in their university environment with a trainer on hand. However, the timing of the on-site training can be challenging because the spring semester is often just starting as volunteer training is ending and tax season is beginning. It is helpful if students have been exposed to TaxWise or some other professional tax preparation software in their coursework or have a chance to practice with the software on campus.
TaxWise is a CCH product with a relatively low share of the professional tax software market. Stetson students who have used both TaxWise and ProSeries note that TaxWise is easier for the beginning tax preparer than ProSeries, but they find that having proficiency in more than one type of professional software is beneficial. Kevin Holbert, a Stetson student, told one of the authors in comments on his time as a VITA volunteer,
In my experience, TaxWise takes the preparer [through the return preparation process] in [a] more logical, step-by-step basis. It doesn't overwhelm the preparer, especially one who is new to professional software for the preparation of taxes. On the other hand, ProSeries allows the preparer to view the return in a broader overview, which gives the preparer a much better sense of how entries affect the return as a whole.
A typical site location would include an area for individual taxpayers to be greeted and prescreened to ensure that they have brought complete information, including proper identification. In this area, taxpayers normally complete an intake sheet. From there, they go to a work station with a PC that has access to TaxWise. Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader are also required. Generally, at least one printer and a copying machine are also available. The layout of the room is less important than keeping the clients' information confidential. A large, open room would be adequate if taxpayers were sufficiently far apart so that no information sharing is likely. Access to a telephone is also helpful because volunteers can call an IRS liaison for direct help on difficult tax questions.
The IRS will provide some materials such as training supplies, intake sheets, sign-in sheets, and required posters, and partners normally contribute what they are able to. Other typical supplies include name tags, large envelopes for client records, calculators, writing utensils, printer paper, and local signage.
The number of preparers, and hence workstations, needed depends on demand. As an example, the Stetson VITA site provides one greeter, five preparers (workstations), and one site coordinator during each night of tax preparation.
The VITA Experience and Problem-Solving
In general, each client arrives and is met by a greeter, who signs the client in and gives the client Form 13614-C, Intake/Interview & Quality Review Sheet, to complete. If the client meets the qualifications for free tax preparation, the client is directed to a computer station staffed by a tax preparer (and interpreter, if needed and available). The tax preparer conducts an in-depth interview from information on the intake and interview sheet and, using the client's forms, works with him or her to complete the tax return. The return is then quality-reviewed by another certified volunteer, who uses a checklist to ensure the return is accurate. When the return is complete, a copy is printed for the client, who signs all necessary documents before e-filing. During the process, the client may also receive information about savings bonds, checking and debit card accounts, and financial education classes at some VITA sites. Most (but not all) clients appreciate the help. VITA volunteer Tresa Roberts, a Stetson student, told one of the authors,
Once the return is done, most clients are extremely thankful for your help. However, once in a while you do get a client who is not happy with their refund amount, and there is nothing you can do about it except try to explain to them why their refund is what it is.
According to an old adage, if something can go wrong, it probably will. VITA programs need to have a mechanism in place for solving problems as they arise. Often, the first line of defense is to have one or more well-trained site coordinators with recent tax preparation experience. This role may be filled by instructors, local tax practitioners, and/or VITA volunteers with previous experience. In addition, the IRS provides easy access to a regional VITA coordinator who can provide answers and assistance with unusually complicated situations.
For detailed information on the roles and responsibilities of a site coordinator, and other pertinent facts about VITA site operations, see the IRS Volunteer Site Coordinator's Handbook.
Strong faculty support is also essential to a successful program. While generally one faculty leader or contact point is enough, that faculty member will need the support of other faculty in recruiting student volunteers and securing on-campus resources when a VITA site is located on campus. For example, where there is an on-campus VITA site, campus computers, phone systems, copiers, and incidental supplies might be used. Because a site is generally open several hours per week, release time for a faculty member or an overload stipend might be appropriate, although not all universities offer this. Faculty members do not need a specialty in federal income tax, although that may help a site run more efficiently during operating hours. As such, a site can be run by committed adjuncts or non-tenure-track faculty for whom service is rewarded or at least does not come at the cost of research time needed by faculty seeking tenure at universities that highly value research.
At the end of tax preparation season, it is important to have a wrapup function to celebrate the success of the program and to show students that the university, the community, and the taxpayers appreciate them. Additionally, the completed returns are evaluated and analyzed at the conclusion of tax season for quality control.
In the offseason, it is important to follow up on the program's success and to include student leaders in the planning process. This is also the time to identify the following year's potential leaders and to nurture those skills that will help the students grow and develop.
The university or its sponsoring partner may wish to apply for grants to pay trainers, professional site coordinators, and/or general coordinators and to cover the cost of program supplies where possible. Each year, the IRS awards matching grants to organizations that participate in VITA, primarily to extend services to underserved populations. More information on applying for an IRS grant can be found here. Other state and federal cash and in-kind supply grants may be available from grants.gov, financial institutions participating in the Community Reinvestment Act, local governments, corporations (especially local businesses), and other not-for-profit or faith-based organizations.Conclusion
A properly administrated student VITA program is a win-win-win-win for the university, the community, student volunteers, and potential employers. The university wins by providing opportunities for students to develop and mature in their commitment to community engagement and by demonstrating its commitment to being a good citizen of the community in a valuable and tangible way. Low- and middle-income members of the community win by receiving professional tax preparation services at no cost. Student volunteers win by developing skills and work habits that will make them more marketable, and hence potential employers win by having the opportunity to hire graduates who have the experience, skills, and work ethic to transition easily and efficiently into the workplace. Stetson student Joan Hudson sums up her experience, "It is a nice feeling to know that I have helped somebody with my time and effort, even if it is in a small way.
Nellen is a professor in the
Department of Accounting and Finance at
San José State University in San José,
Calif. She is a member of the AICPA Tax
Division Tax Executive Committee and the
Tax Reform Task Force. Valrie
Chambers is an associate professor
of accounting at Stetson University in
Celebration, Fla., and is the editor of
Tax Adviser's Tax Practice &
Procedures column. Bonnie
Holloway is a visiting lecturer of
accounting at Stetson University. Maria
Rickling is an assistant professor
of accounting at Stetson University. For
more information about this column, please
contact Prof. Chambers at firstname.lastname@example.org.