In conversation with Jill Sturm, Tax Aid
Tax-Aid provides year-round free tax services to low income households, freeing up critical resources for individuals and families. We sat down with Jill Sturm, Executive Director at Tax Aid, to learn more about their work, and how they are meeting their clients' needs in this particular moment.
Tell us what TaxAid does and who you support
Tax-Aid provides year-round free tax services to strengthen our San Francisco Bay Area community. We were founded in 1988 by accountants and lawyers who wanted to lend a hand, and we primarily help households with annual incomes below $57,000. This year we’re anticipating serving 2,000 clients, thanks to our network of skilled volunteers (primarily CPAs, accountants, attorneys, and accounting students).
Why is this service so important?
For many people, taxes are complicated and scary! For households with a lower-income, it’s particularly important, as a tax refund is frequently the largest paycheck a family will receive all year. It can help a family build savings, pay down debt, take a child to the doctor, stay safely housed, or stay connected to the internet for children to continue to distance learn.
There is often a lot of anxiety around financial matters. Tax law and rules are complicated, and change every year. It’s a challenge even for experts like our volunteers to keep up!
What types of services do you provide?
We offer a variety of types of support. For some clients comfortable preparing their taxes themselves, it can simply be letting them use our free version of TurboTax, a software accessible through our website. We also offer clients the opportunity to have their tax returns checked by a Tax-Aid coach before submitting them. For others, volunteers can help prepare their tax returns for them, through a secure platform.
Clients who aren’t comfortable doing that online, or who might not have internet access and/or technical skills, can drop them off. Pre-Covid-19, we used to operate a community-based in-person model to serve our clients. Now, we have curbside drop-off sites. We hold these events outdoors. Social distancing is practiced and face coverings are required. Once all the documents are collected, tax returns can be prepared virtually by our volunteers. We’ve had around 300 people choose this option, including many seniors.
We spent a lot of time updating our website to make it easier for clients to navigate the services best suited for them.
Photo caption: Tax Aid Need Tax Help page
What has changed this year in particular?
This year, we have had to field a lot of questions from clients around the stimulus package, trying to figure out if they were eligible, or why they didn’t receive it. For example, some people were not required to file a tax return because they were below the minimum income-filing threshold but still needed to take some action in order to receive these payments. We updated our website to help them navigate this. Many other rules also changed, like how unemployment is accounted for, and updates to childcare credits.
What have been your biggest challenges this past year?
Pre-Covid, during tax season, we would typically have up to thirty tax sites across the Bay Area with 150 volunteers helping out. Many of these volunteers weren’t actually tax experts: we had them help screen clients, collect documents, interview them… With Covid, we lost a lot of volunteers and had to bring on more administrative customer service support to ensure consistency of service, which raised our costs. We also had to adapt the volunteer experience, trying to replicate virtually the collaborative networking experience people loved. We started hosting Zoom parties on Saturday where we have groups of 20 volunteers who can connect, ask each other questions, and simply be together. The model actually works quite well: the administrative staff prepare everything during the week so that the volunteers can power through tax returns on the weekend.
Photo caption: Zoom party with Tax Aid volunteers
We also had to improve all our technology and systems to better serve clients virtually: setting up secure platforms for them to enter their data through our website, upload documents, and interact with our volunteers.
What has surprised you most during this time?
A lot of clients are surprised that we are not offering our services in person. Many of them are working in essential service jobs, and have never stopped working outside their home. The assumption that everyone is working from home is one we often make, but is simply not the reality of many of our clients.
Given the economic situation, I was also a little worried about how clients would react during this tax season. I was anticipating providing de-escalation training to our volunteers. But actually, people are extremely grateful, despite the tough year they’ve had. Many programs similar to ours have had to shut down during the pandemic, the IRS isn’t picking up the phone anymore... Many of our clients have told us that we are the only ones who’ve returned their calls. Despite difficult conversations with people who might not be getting the refund they were expecting, or are feeling at the end of their rope, there is a lot of gratitude.
Photo: Curbside drop off at Our Second Home in Daly City. Courtesy of Tax Aid