VITA Goes Virtual
When Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) 2020 drew to a close last April, organizers for 2021 rolled up their sleeves and got to work on this year’s clinics before the last refund checks were even issued.
The outbreak of COVID-19 meant organizers of last year’s VITA program had to suddenly shift from in-person clinics to virtual ones, relying on email – a cumbersome process – to conduct business and finish up the program.
“Because we had more time to prepare, we created a new system that mimicked our in-person process,” says student leader Scott Haveman, an accounting and finance double major who is also pursuing a Master of Accounting and will be joining Deloitte’s Dallas office as an audit associate. “We developed a process that allowed clients to join our Zoom call and then be moved among breakout rooms to their preparers and reviewers.”
VITA is an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) program that provides low-and moderate-income families and individuals, people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers with free tax preparation help. Volunteers assisting with the VITA Program come from all walks of life, including retirees, college and high school students, IRS employees and people who just want to help in their communities, says Mark Munsterman, senior tax consultant with the IRS Stakeholder Partnerships, Education & Communication (SPEC) office in Omaha.
For more than 40 years, Heider College of Business accounting and finance students, all IRS-certified volunteers, have gained valuable industry experience while serving members of the Creighton and greater Omaha community. In the past 10 years the Creighton students have also served the Winnebago Reservation communities by holding clinics in Winnebago, Macy, and at several of the casinos where many residents work. Munsterman says the IRS partnership with Creighton is “invaluable to myself and the community.”
A total of six clinics were held on campus, beginning in mid-February. All were virtual, with only Creighton staff and students allowed to attend in person. 112 students completed 233 returns for 215 clients, generating $362,588 of net refunds, including state and federal.
The improved process was safe, allowed for real-time interaction and prompt responses to client questions and avoided many security issues email typically presents.
Difficulties remained, however. Most centered on technology. “Some clients did not have access to Zoom, so it was a challenge to make sure that we did our best to accommodate everyone,” says fellow student leader Alex Taylor, accounting and business intelligence and analytics double major and Spanish and Hispanic studies minor who is earning Master of Accounting. She will be joining KPMG’s office in Denver as an audit associate after graduation.
“We did our best to emulate the same process and environment as in-person returns in the past,” Taylor continues. “It required a large amount of hard work and dedication to make sure the Zoom process ran as smoothly as possible. We also had a wonderful group of volunteers who did a great job remaining as professional over Zoom as they typically are in-person.”
Lack of experience with technology was also a challenge. In the past, clients simply had to bring financial documents to their in-person session. This spring, they were required to upload images and documents to a sharable server. Preparers saw delays as a result but were trained to help clients in the virtual format.
“Overall, I was pleased with the patience of both the clients and our volunteers and was impressed with the amount of returns we were able to complete,” says Haveman.
Clients were pleased as well, providing positive feedback on the students’ ability to address their concerns and secure much-needed refunds.
“Many clients were especially stressed about filing taxes this year due to the issues with stimulus checks, unemployment, CARES Act, and the added difficulty of being unable to meet in person,” says Haveman.
Taylor and Haveman say that using their skills to directly serve the public in a meaningful way is rewarding, especially helping low-income individuals avoid the extra financial burden of a paid preparation. For many, filing a 2020 return meant they could collect unpaid stimulus checks.
“It is important for Creighton and the Heider College of Business to offer programs such as VITA because it is our responsibility to share the gifts we have been given with those around us,” says Taylor. Plus, VITA is “a great way for Creighton to connect with the surrounding community, especially during the pandemic when we have not been able to do regular service, giving us the opportunity to build and enhance those relationships.”
Participating students are required to write a reflection paper that challenges them to express how their service puts Jesuit values into action.
“In spite of all the challenges, this was one of the most impactful group of students in my memory,” says Tom Purcell, PhD, CPA, professor of accounting, who serves as VITA faculty advisor, with assistance from Janessa Wolf, MS, CPA, instructor of accounting. “Even without the ability to serve clients in person, the students still managed to engage not only the Omaha metropolitan area, but also Native Americans on the Winnebago Reservation. On their reflections many felt that this service outreach touched them as much as the clients, because it helped them understand that their professional skills could be used in service of others. I am extremely proud of their efforts and our results.”