Recruiting volunteers for your VITA site is only half the job. Unfortunately, tax preparation can seem intimidating, and many volunteers may drop out before the tax season begins.
If you can afford to, it’s helpful to hire a dedicated volunteer manager that volunteers can turn to. If you can’t afford a dedicated position, build these tasks into the role of your site coordinator or turn to your experienced volunteers for help.
Volunteers who feel useful and supported are more likely to return to your site in the future and take on further responsibility. Here are eight tips that can help your volunteers look forward to volunteering again and again.
1. Plan in advance, but be flexible
Know ahead of time how many volunteers you need and what roles you need to fill. You will want most of your volunteers to commit to a weekly tax shift. However, you may have potential volunteers who can only commit to one or two days. Think of creative ways to use volunteers who may not fit your usual roles. Consider hosting a ‘Super Saturday’ event or other tax filing day to file hundreds of tax returns at once. This way, you can welcome people who can't make a long-term time commitment. They may become a full-season volunteer next year.
Not everyone who wants to volunteer wants to prepare taxes. Are there other ways you can use their skills? Perhaps some interested volunteers can be greeters at your site. Another option is to have financial coaches. Folks with baking skills could make tasty treats for both volunteers and clients at the site. Someone with language skills other than English could be on call as an interpreter.
Be willing to work with all kinds of people to bring their unique skills to your tax site.
2. Personalize the experience
Today’s volunteers have their own goals (that may differ from yours). They’re looking for positions that offer opportunities to learn and build new skills while putting their talents to good use. They want to have a say in what they do and make personal connections. Many volunteers are looking for flexibility in their role.
As a volunteer manager, your job is to understand what your volunteers need from their volunteer experience. Once you have their information, send a personalized welcome email to reach out and make sure they’re coming. Make sure they know that they can contact you with any questions. Many of today’s volunteers, especially younger ones, want more than just an impersonal boss.
Throughout the tax season, check in with your volunteers. One of the biggest turnoffs to volunteers is feeling like their skills aren't being put to good use and they aren't making an impact. Ask them if they feel that their skills are being used to their full potential. If not, see if they could be participating in a different role at the tax site. If you manage many volunteers and don’t have the capacity to check in with each one individually, talk to a portion of your volunteers to see how it’s going. Aim to talk to volunteers of different ages and levels of experience.
3. Make it simple (and be specific about what you need)
Have you had some volunteers leave before the tax season starts? Or drop out during the training process because it is complicated or difficult? This speaks to why it’s important to simplify the process. The fewer steps it takes to volunteer, the more likely it is that volunteers will stay through the end of the tax season.
Be clear about the roles at your tax site and what each commitment entails. Include what they will do, how long the commitment will be, what the training requires, and any other pertinent info. Use our 6 step one pager, or modify it and make your own. If potential volunteers don’t fit one of the roles, that’s also okay! Explore opportunities to create modified volunteer positions.
4. Support your volunteers (and identify potential problems)
Help new volunteers feel supported even when they face a challenge so they will have a rewarding experience that makes them want to return next year.
Give specific instructions and tasks. Tax law and software can be daunting, especially for older preparers who may not feel as comfortable with the technology. Make sure your volunteers know who they can reach out to in case they have any problems.
Even after completing their IRS certification, volunteers may not feel comfortable doing taxes on their own. If possible, pair new tax volunteers with returning preparers who can guide them through their first few returns. It may help new preparers to watch someone process a return before they try it. This guidance can help ease many of the fears and apprehension of tax preparation.
5. Focus on tangible results and feature volunteers’ work
Volunteers like to be reassured that their work is producing real results. Luckily, it's easy to track results at a tax site. On a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis, give updates on how many tax returns your site has prepared and how much money the returns have generated in tax refunds. Make sure volunteers understand that any money generated through tax refunds is money that goes back into the community and helps local businesses and the economy.
Profile individual volunteers in newsletters and on social media and share their stories. You can also feature your volunteers as a group. This can help volunteers feel valued.
6. Establish opportunities for leadership and greater responsibility
Provide volunteers leadership opportunities when they return to your tax site. This makes them feel involved and reinforces the idea that their work is producing tangible results. For college students, in particular, a leadership role can support the fact that they are doing a good job and provides resume-building experience.
7. Offer to write letters of recommendation
This is especially useful for people who will start working for the first time or who have been unemployed after a while. Not only will they be appreciative, it'll help you generate a relationship with them. Let them know during recruitment and training that this is a possibility. It may encourage some students to volunteer more of their time in order to get to know you better (so you can write them a better recommendation).
8. Appreciate your volunteers
After the tax season is over, throw a thank you party to celebrate their achievements. Right after the end of the tax season, send a letter or email to thank volunteers for their work and to provide an update with final tax season stats. Get more ideas to let your volunteers know that you value them here.
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