Learn more about the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia here
Learn more about United Community here
As a community foundation, why did you decide to support work related to tax credits?
At the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, our community leadership work is led by four pillars aimed at “building a community that works for everyone.” These pillars are inclusive economic growth, racial justice and equity, community resilience and social and economic mobility. Our work invests in communities in Northern Virginia that don’t normally have access to the resources they need to solve long-standing community problems. It is advised by our existing and expanding relationships with diverse community leaders who possess a deep understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in their spheres of influence.
When the American Rescue Plan Act was being implemented last Summer, we had conversations internally and with our partners about how to maximize the funding coming into communities and use them to increase economic stability for families. We asked, “What would happen if we actually gave funding to families?” That is what really started this whole process of exploring how we might support work on tax credits.
We had never done work related to tax credit but saw the research that shows the powerful impact that the CTC and EITC have on reducing poverty. We continued to talk to our partners and examine ways to enter into work on tax credits; and then, the EITC Funders Network announced the COOP Fund opportunity. We jumped at the chance to apply for the grant. It seemed like a perfect fit for the conversations we had been having during the previous months. We also had an existing relationship with a trusted community partner, United Community (UC), who had also been thinking about entering into the work related to tax credits. We were confident that they would be able to connect to community members who are the hardest to reach because they have been doing work to identify and train community leaders.
Why was partnership essential to the success of your work?
Our community leadership work cannot happen without community partners. Since we already had a relationship with UC, this was a natural partnership. Prior to this, we were involved in work leading up to the 2020 census. We did work to bring jurisdictions together, educate partners, share resources and ensure that communities had more resources than they had during past efforts. That said, there was a lot of learning from that experience. We learned that we are not “in” community. We needed to partner and trust community to tell us what they need. We knew that UC has direct access to community residents through their Neighborhood Ambassador Program. So, building on that strong base was a natural fit.
UC’s mission is to empower neighbors in need to transform their lives. Their aspiration is to end multi-generational poverty in their community. We could help facilitate that by providing support and resources. But the reality is that UC has the relationships, the trusted partners and the ability to utilize the Neighborhood Ambassador Program to connect to community members in a way that we would not have been able to do.
At UC, we had been working to identify and train community leaders who can support projects, share information and connect community members to resources. They have assisted us during the pandemic with mobile food distribution, vaccine registration and other community initiatives. For example, one of our neighborhood ambassadors was able to help over 900 people get vaccinated in her community just by going door to door. We were looking forward to doing work on tax credits because the pandemic had a huge impact on the financial stability of many members of the community and we wanted to figure out how to get more money back into the pockets of families and help them get their taxes done for free.
Our goal was to reach as many people as possible during the tax season, so we also relied on partnerships to help us expand our reach. We partnered with AARP in order to leverage the infrastructure they built to do this work. We were able to provide things that they couldn’t like childcare at the library. We also provided breakfast and snacks. This strong partnership benefited more people in the community than if we had tried to do it alone. So much so that we have already agreed that we’ll be back next year.
Through our work, we were able to connect people looking for tax help to other resources. We were also able to build our bench of community leaders who are trusted messengers. As with any institution, people who have never worked with us have to learn to trust us. Having trusted messengers was a key to the success we had as first-time free tax preparers. We identify potential community leaders at community events and from referrals from other community leaders. People come to events and have a passion about something and don’t know what to do. We tell them we can help them with training to become community leaders. Our approach is to go in and do what they do whether it be sing, pray and/or work together. This helps us to build goodwill and trust. We then train community leaders and prepare them to do awareness, outreach and engagement activities. Our community leaders did things like share information, hang flyers, make phone calls, send text messages, set up appointments and help community members feel more comfortable with us as an organization who was new to the free tax prep space.
Due to COVID and the temporary tax credit expansions, this was a unique tax season.
Can you tell us about the challenges and opportunities in your work during this year’s tax season? What went well?
As a community foundation new to supporting work related to tax credits, we knew it would be a challenge because we had a lot to learn in a short period of time. At the same time, this gave us the opportunity to demonstrate what could happen if we leaned into trusting the leadership of our grantee partner and in the communities we serve. We developed the vision together for this project and then played a supporting role while they led the work on the ground. We gave them the flexibility to adapt as they saw fit (in real time) and encouraged them to make decisions they felt were in the best interest of the project. I am happy to share that the results are even better than we thought they could be when we started this journey.
At UC, we were very excited about the opportunity to educate the community about tax credits (CTC, EITC, ITINs). We work with a lot of immigrants and teaching them about their tax credits rights was very important to us. We found that first we needed to teach why this was important then families were more likely to work with us to complete their taxes. It was also a great opportunity to build trusting relationships with community members. For example, being able to come back, to bring paperwork or if they received letters from the IRS was something that families really valued. Their level of comfort and trust in us would increase with every visit. It was a good lesson that in order to change the practices in a community, you have to increase trust, especially in a system where trust is low.
One of the challenges we faced was making pandemic adjustments. Many people were still readjusting to in-person tax services. We were offering in-person services, but some people wanted remote tax prep due to COVID. We had to reassure people by telling them that we were still following COVID protocols and it was safe to come in and get their taxes done. The other challenge we faced was trying to sell the opportunity of free tax services. People would ask, “what’s the catch?” Some people didn’t believe that our services could really be for free. Once we were able to get the 1st group of people through, the process got easier because the first group did the referrals. They would say “I did it and so you should do it too. You trust me, right?” So, we had challenges, but we were able to work through them which was really great for our team.
What lessons were learned from your first attempt at providing tax preparation services?
At UC, some of the lesson we learned from our first attempt to provide free tax services included:
- Neighbors helping neighbors IS building social capital. We needed to support the neighborhood ambassadors which brought a sense of comfort to them and helped them to prioritize the work. Being an ambassador is a title, but they are community members first. Elizabeth said, “It was a privilege to help. Sometimes we take the services and sometimes we help. It felt good to give back.”
- Use tax credits as a part of a pipeline to other services (such as citizenship, vaccines, small business development, etc).
- Be strategic on rollout. We began with sharing information via social media, email and WhatsApp. That said, not everyone was getting the information, so we switched to door-to-door and flyers which made it more personable and yielded increased results.
- We called, emailed and texted families each week to remind them to get their taxes filed with us. We also put flyers everywhere! We didn’t want people to be able to say, “I didn’t know.” We put them in places such as laundromats, bus stops, etc. People would say, “I saw a flyer at the bus stop.”
- Many families did not expect to receive a refund. One woman came in crying and said, “I got money from nowhere.” I said, “No, this is your money. This is your right.”
- We also learned to never give up. We need to keep talking to our communities. Sometimes they just need more encouragement.
As we look ahead, what advice do you have for community
foundations and other funders who are interested in doing work related to tax?
As a community foundation and community-based organization partnering to do this work, the advice we would offer to other community foundations and funders who are interested in doing work related to tax credits include:
- Make Strategic Investments- Invest and partner with organizations who will think creatively and are committed to getting the job done.
- Demonstrate Trust– Trust grantees and people in communities. Know that they have access to things that we don’t have and can make the best decisions about what they need and how to get things done.
- Don’t Reinvent the Wheel– Leverage systems that are already set up and build capacity there. Building capacity on this initiative had a multiplier effect.
- Educate– Invest in education and awareness initiatives. Taxes are a hard and scary concept for many people. Help to reduce anxiety and build community awareness and action through education.
- Be Flexible– Don’t be afraid to adapt and be nimble in real-time to do what works