By Jen Fletcher, 2017 Get It Back Campaign Intern
Free tax preparation programs in rural communities and places with low population density face a twofold challenge: site accessibility, and outreach to potential clients. United Way of Lancaster County, whose tax sites serve both urban and rural communities in South Central Pennsylvania, experiences distinct challenges because of geography.
According to VITA program director Steve O’Neill, developing a solution to this barrier came down to “a stroke of good luck.” In 2015, United Way looked for strategies to increase VITA participation in a rural part of the county that only offered one site at the local library. The library owned a recently vacated store next door and offered to rent the space to the VITA program for about $1,500. A local bank partner in the community funded the rent to get the new site started.
The new site location was an immediate success. Within a year of operation, volunteers prepared 1,200 returns, compared to the 800 returns they used to prepare at the library. In the 2017 tax season, United Way filed over 1,600 returns at the site.
The location is popular among volunteers, who claim to feel a sense of ownership in the site. Volunteers appreciate the designated space for their work and often put in extra hours. Since volunteers don’t have to set up and take down the equipment each day, they save an hour of time that can be spent serving more clients. In 2018, the site expanded its operating hours to 12 hours a day from Monday to Wednesday, and 8 hours on Saturdays.
Although the rent has increased to $3,000 for the season, United Way of Lancaster County’s partners have stepped up to the plate. With the success of this new VITA site, United Way looks forward to establishing a storefront VITA site in an urban location.
For tips on cultivating successful partnerships with banks, check out our training on developing and maintaining relationships with financial institutions. For additional support, please contact the Get It Back campaign.