Thursday, April 11, 2013

How Tax Prep Sites Help Recruit New Clients

By Darren Hamm,
deputy director, NHSGC

The yearly obligation to file taxes is often a rare opportunity for people to really reflect on their finances and to connect with community organizations that can help them year-round. This can help save them money and help nonprofits reach new clients.

Last year Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland (NHSGC) started a financial capability program and this tax season marks the second year of our first Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which helps Cleveland residents of lower incomes receive free help filing their taxes. We chose to run this VITA site because, if you’re talking about asset building, there’s really nothing more direct than saving someone $450 in tax prep and having their refund— often 50% of their annual income—invested in the local environment (utilities, groceries, car repair, tuition) or helping that person pay down debt.

So far this season, NHSGC has assisted in returning more than $750,000 in income tax returns to more than 400 people throughout northeast Ohio, further saving these taxpayers more than $160,000 in filing fees.  This is great for the residents and it’s also an important way for NHSGC to reach new clients.

We identify potential clients by having VITA site tax filers complete surveys on how they will use their refund, their biggest challenges financially and other such questions that can assess their financial capability. We then connect tax filers to services that can address those needs. Sometimes the services are ones we provide and other times we connect tax filers to our local partners. Our hope is that those who haven’t worked with us yet will remember we are here if need arises.

Volunteers from Charter One Bank and Darren Hamm, NHSGC
This approach has already paid off for us and for our new clients. In the past few months we’ve assisted tax filers with foreclosure, helped them register and take homeownership courses, and apply for home repair loans. We’ve been able to help these new clients because they share many characteristics with our current clients, such as geographic location. However, as a group, the new clients/tax filers are more likely to rent than own and they generally have more modest incomes, so we keep that in mind when explaining our services.

Overall, we feel it’s been a successful tax season and we hope to maintain relationships with clients in the coming year.  To close out, we’re hosting a Super Saturday event on April 13 in partnership with Charter One Bank. Tax filers will have their taxes prepared, learn about opportunities to save their tax refund, and be entered into a Cleveland Saves drawing for opening up a savings account on site.