There Are People Who Volunteer to Do What?
By Brad Martin, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program Coordinator
United Way of Southwest Alabama (UWSWA) is one of several Mobile area nonprofit organizations that partners with the IRS to offer the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Indeed, UWSWA partner agencies Goodwill Gulf Coast and Mobile Community Action also participate in helping low and middle income taxpayers file their tax returns for free with the help of certified volunteers. And many other organizations join us in this work.
The VITA program operates nationwide through a network of nonprofits, churches, colleges and universities, law schools, and other organizations. Volunteers generally take training developed by the IRS and prepared and administered by the organizations they serve. Then they take multiple exams to achieve tax law certification. Then and only then can they prepare tax returns at locations across the community. Training and certification both require hours of volunteer time before the first tax return is prepared.
It’s not unusual for people to hear about the VITA program and react with shock. “There are people who do taxes voluntarily? For other people? And they don’t charge for that?”
The surprise would be understandable any year. Most people dread the idea of doing their own taxes. Many put it off as long as humanly possible. (This year you have until May 17 in most cases.) So the thought that there are people who volunteer to sit down and prepare return after return just seems … wrong, even in a normal year.
Add to that the phenomenon we’ve come to know as COVID-19, and even UWSWA staff members are amazed. This year, training for volunteers was limited, and what training there was had to be conducted virtually. Tax laws have continued to change, even after the tax filing season started. Many of UWSWA’s volunteers are over age 65, so they had every reason to be concerned about the pandemic. And yet, many have chosen to return to this work.
UWSWA volunteers have demonstrated incredible commitment in this unconventional tax season. They come to the tax sites with masks on, hand sanitizer at the ready, and desk shields in place. Their days begin. In the course of a shift, they’ll see three, four, five or more taxpayers. They’ll see lots more if they’re doing quality review–the act of checking prepared returns for accuracy.
What drives this kind of commitment? The answers are as varied as the volunteers themselves. Many volunteers will tell you they like working with figures. Some will tell you they enjoy the puzzle-like feeling of solving a return, figuring out the best strategy for the taxpayer, and applying the tax law to come up with the best outcome. Still others will tell you they like detail work–making sure every I is dotted and every T is crossed.
But for our volunteers, the overarching theme isn’t math or puzzles or rules or laws. It’s the people our program serves. A long-time volunteer with our program recently said, “You can’t be in this line of work and not like people.”
The people we serve need our help, and they’ve come to rely on it. Whether we’re working with a college student filing her first return or a retiree who’s about to turn 100 years old, they all need help with their taxes.
We see lots of fiercely loyal repeat clients who come back to the same location every year, if not the same volunteer. We know all about their financial lives, but we also know many of their personal stories. The retired teacher who moved from another state to be closer to family; the single mother whose daughter is about to get married; the widow whose husband always took care of the taxes and suddenly must figure out that process for herself; we see them all.
People look to their tax preparers for advice. “Why do I owe every year?” “Now that my son has moved out of the house, what do I need to change about my withholding?” “I didn’t get my stimulus payment in January. Can you help me with that?”
Sometimes the returns are easy; maybe the taxpayer just has a W-2, or they have a pension and social security. Sometimes the returns are more difficult. Maybe the person was working, but lost a job due to COVID-19 and had to rely on unemployment while they picked up a side gig delivering groceries, and they had to cash in a 401(K) to make ends meet.
Sometimes they’re depending on their tax refunds to make a car payment or pay down a credit card they ran up due to the pandemic. Sometimes they can save some of that refund. And sometimes they don’t get a refund–which is hard for many people to understand; sometimes they owe a lot! Sometimes they have so little income that it’s hard for many of us to imagine living on that amount of money; but somehow they manage.
Tax volunteers see those realities. But often we see how we can make a difference in the lives of those people, even with just a brief but honest conversation–and always with dignity and respect.
“When you started the job you have now, you probably had two kids living at home. Now they’ve moved out, and you’re still withholding taxes as if they’re going to be a part of your tax return. It’s time to adjust your withholding to match your current situation. Let me print the form for you, and we can talk about it.”
“Last year you had tax forms from five companies or banks, but I only see one of them this year. If I make a list of them and we schedule another appointment for you, will you call them and ask them to send you any forms you’re missing?”
“Despite what you’ve heard, working a lot of overtime is not a signal to stop having taxes held out of your check. Sure, you’ll see more money when you get paid; but you’ll owe a lot more money when tax time comes.”
The sentiment that volunteers have expressed is that we have to do this work, because people need help with their taxes. At UWSWA, we honor the intense commitment that volunteers have made to serving our community. We know that for some volunteers, service in the time of a pandemic just isn’t possible right now. But we also know that when circumstances improve, they will be back to do the work we all love and help the people we serve. It’s an honor to count each and every one of them as members of our volunteer family.
And it’s an honor to serve the people in our community. This is my tenth tax season, and some of our volunteers have been at it longer than that. I can honestly say, and I’m sure I speak for many of our volunteers, as much as I may have taught our taxpayers about their financial situations, they’ve taught me about life. They’ve introduced me to realities that I have never had to know, and through it all they’re just grateful and appreciative. They appreciate the work our volunteers do, and they appreciate being seen and heard and respected and supported. And I can’t imagine what could be more gratifying for a program coordinator than to know that kind of success.
By Brad Martin, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program Coordinator