Tell us about The Piton’s Foundation strategy and how Get Ahead Colorado and Tax Help Colorado fit into your work of supporting families and driving social change for low-income communities.
For more than 40 years, The Piton Foundation, which is part of Gary Community Investments, has been investing in the Colorado community with a specific focus on improving the lives of Colorado children and families with low incomes. Our founder, Sam Gary, believes that if children are going to have a chance at success, both generations – parents and children – must be supported. Piton puts this two-generation approach into practice through both its philanthropic investments and programs.
Get Ahead Colorado, formerly the Tax Credits for Working Families Public Information Campaign, was created nearly 30 years ago as a program of The Piton Foundation to help educate working Colorado families about their potential eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The program has since grown into one the largest EITC outreach efforts in the country. In 2007, we recognized an opportunity to build on this effort and connect even more Colorado families to valuable tax credits. Piton partnered with the Colorado Community College System to launch Tax Help Colorado, a program that provides free tax preparation for families with low to moderate incomes across the state. In addition to these two programs, Piton operates Shift Research Lab to make data more accessible to nonprofits, researchers and lawmakers and to inform and monitor community change.
These programs were created as strategies to help us get to our shared organizational vision: that all children in Colorado have the opportunity to grow up healthy and reach their full potential.
How do you build momentum around tax preparation and the EITC in Colorado and what is the role of your community partnerships?
In 2018, Tax Help Colorado provided free tax preparation to more than 7,600 individuals and helped Colorado families claim $12.6 million in tax credits—$5 million of which were EITC refunds. In large part, these impressive results are thanks to our tax site partnerships.
Through our Get Ahead Colorado campaign, each year we work with hundreds of community-based partners, non-profits, government entities and businesses across Colorado to help us raise awareness of the EITC and free tax prep. We rely on these partners to share our materials with their clients and communities. We partner strategically with organizations that already have a trusted relationship with the people and communities in our target demographic.
An essential aspect of our work centers on educating our partners about these resources. In conversations with our partners, we work to create a clear and compelling connection between tax credits and how this work advances their own goals, priorities and outcomes. For instance, when we work with health and human services agencies, we are able to talk to them about the research around the health impacts of tax credits. When we work with school districts, it’s helpful to be able to communicate the ways the EITC can positively impact student outcomes.
On a practical level, information sharing looks a little different now than when we started 30 years ago – we still print more than 750,000 pieces of collateral each year, but we also provide digital content to our partners like sample social media content, newsletter copy, and videos (here’s an example of a video we created to show how the EITC supports Colorado families). We work closely with our partners to learn about their existing communication channels and their communications needs, so we can align our work with theirs and make collaborating with us as seamless as possible.
What are some of the recent lessons learned in your work around messaging and reaching EITC-eligible populations?
In 2018, we took a step back and worked with a consultant to develop a clear profile of EITC-eligible families in our state to determine how we can better market to them. While we knew EITC participation rates in Colorado were low compared to the US average, we wanted to better understand why. We found that only 3.6 percent of EITC recipients in Colorado used a VITA program (50.8 percent self-filed and 45.5 used a paid preparer) and that Spanish-speaking communities in our state had even less access. Armed with this knowledge, we worked with a creative agency to develop a new brand and create messaging that could better resonate with the individuals and families we are trying to reach.
Through a process of stakeholder interviews, a review of behavioral economics research, and convening of focus groups to test concepts; we found that aspirational, family-focused messages really resonate with EITC-eligible taxpayers. This process also taught us that simple, non-tax specific language is important to engage audiences and convey how the EITC works. We are now putting this research to work by amplifying our EITC-related messages and building our Get Ahead Colorado brand, which – because the new name is more encompassing than our previous name – also allows us to expand the campaign to connect families with other resources that can help move them forward.
What issue or topics would you be interested to talk with your funder-colleagues about?
Although the benefits of the EITC are clear and well researched, I believe there are still misconceptions about who is receiving it and why. As the EITC continues to be part of the national dialogue, I would love to learn from my colleagues how they are working to ensure that the narrative remains focused on those positive benefits. I recently wrote a blog post about EITC myths as a result of hearing some unfair assumptions and mistruths – whether in opinion pieces or sometimes from politicians. For me, it is important to have a clear and honest dialogue about the positive impacts of the EITC on the long-term growth and stability of families. I hope that together we can create some shared language so we can more effectively influence the conversation and continue highlighting the positive impacts of the EITC.