Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is an IRS program that provides free, reliable income tax return preparation to low- to moderate-income taxpayers. Many nonprofit organizations sponsor sites, including colleges and universities, which often integrate the program into teaching taxation to give students some practical experience. I was privileged to help start one last tax season at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where I teach. Educators considering doing likewise might consider these suggestions:
Engage students’ interest and involvement. You cannot start a VITA site and then lose half your student volunteers during tax season. The best solution is to offer academic credit through enrollment in an internship class. This requires students to stay with the program because their grade in the course depends on it.
Prepare a budget, including startup expenses, and seek funding early. Necessary equipment includes computers, printers and other office equipment and supplies. Expenses may include meals for volunteers. Once tax season begins, there is not enough time to pursue donors. We obtained funding for our first season from our college alumni association and foundation.
Work with campus finance and administration officials. If you are going to solicit or accept funds, officials in charge of finance and administration must be aware of it, to ensure you are complying with college policies and procedures.
Devote a fall semester course to planning for next tax season. As soon as one tax season ends, you need to start preparing for the next one. I currently co-teach an internship course in the fall semester on planning and preparation for the spring semester tax season. This includes planning in terms of both setting up the program as well as learning any new tax laws. Also, volunteers must undergo training and obtain IRS certification before preparing returns.
Identify capable and committed student managers and coordinators. They provide oversight of the program and technical support to other student volunteers. They are also responsible for the timely submission and quality review of the returns before filing. Recruiting for these positions might give priority to students who have employment backgrounds as managers and demonstrated ability to manage volunteers. They also should be diligent and able to work well under pressure and on tight deadlines, while researching tax problems and ensuring quality and customer satisfaction.
Schedule classroom or office space. The physical plant department or other office in charge of classrooms or other space you’ll be using needs to know your needs and plans for tables, equipment, connections and access, including space for clients to wait in.
Arrange for proper security. Since students will be working late and setting up classrooms, campus public safety officers or security guards should be advised. In addition, since individuals who do not attend the college will be coming to the campus, security officials need to know, to admit them into the school and to direct them to the VITA site.
Get other faculty involved. Try to recruit faculty members with different backgrounds. My background is primarily auditing, but a colleague has a stronger background in tax. We are also trying to recruit instructors with backgrounds in marketing, management and leadership, to give more flexibility and input.
Go for it! Our program’s first year surpassed our expectations. It was gratifying to see how undergraduate students stepped up to assume new and exciting roles outside that of the traditional student. This student’s assessment was typical: “I’ve always been more of a hands-on learner than a textbook learner. … I’ve never learned more in a class in my entire undergraduate career as I have in this one.”
—By Alexander K. Buchholz, CPA, MBA, (firstname.lastname@example.org), an audit supervisor with Loeb & Troper LLP specializing in the nonprofit and health care sector and an adjunct assistant professor within the City University of New York. He also serves on both the Anti-Money Laundering & Counter Terrorist Financing and the Higher Education committees of the New York State Society of CPAs.
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