United Way Free Tax Preparation Program: Volunteers Welcome!
United Way of King County’s Free Tax Preparation program is in its 20th year! The campaign began in 2003 in White Center as an IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in partnership with the IRS and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Today, it is funded mostly by the IRS, United Way and the City of Seattle.
By 2020, the Free Tax Preparation program had grown to 33 locations, including three Scan-and-Go sites on college campuses, numerous one-day sites to serve hard-to-reach populations, and tax assistance and support through MyFreeTaxes.com. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the campaign to go virtual, but last year it returned to both in person and online.
United Way is seeking volunteers for the tax program, which has become a way of bringing people together and helping folks take advantage of earned income tax credits, the nation’s most vital anti-poverty measure. To learn more about volunteering for the campaign, here’s some insight from Ryan McFerran, United Way program manager of tax credits and financial stability, and Casey Lantz, United Way outreach and relationship specialist.
United Way of King County: What kind of person volunteers for the Free Tax Preparation?
Ryan McFerran: I think that’s one of the unique things about this program: There is not necessarily a volunteer persona. A lot of our volunteers come with their individual motivations. Some people, they love taxes; they’re very interested in the tax code, they’re very interested in learning to do different types of taxes. One of the benefits of being a volunteer is that you are provided access to training and IRS certifications.
There’s also the volunteer who thrives on the community engagement piece and being able to work with community members or their neighbors one-on-one and then problem solve and give them the good news that they’re getting hundreds or thousands of dollars in tax refunds. It’s also a way to combat racial inequality and economic inequality. People who are interested in working on the front lines to address those big social issues [volunteer].
United Way of King County: What type of volunteers come back year after year?
Casey Lantz: A big bulk of our volunteers are former clients. They see the value of the program and bond with the people helping with their taxes. A lot of people come and help with intake, especially those who speak languages other than English. We tend to attract Spanish speakers who see the difficulties Spanish-speaking people have coming into our sites if they don’t come with a translator. And they come back to be tax volunteers.
Ryan McFerran: Also, because our volunteer opportunity is an engagement that takes place over a couple of months, there’s a camaraderie that builds throughout the tax season. People come back year after year because they build relationships and they like the opportunity to work alongside their friends.
United Way of King County: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the program?
Casey Lantz: COVID flipped everything upside down and inside out. In the middle of March  the shutdown happened; we all received notice and all of our stuff was left in the rooms. But we shifted to online platforms very quickly. We partnered with GetYourRefund.org and got together all of our site managers and volunteers who were interested in participating. We put them in a cauldron and we said, “We need to figure it out.” It was definitely a learn-by-doing situation. We’ve now had a couple of years of virtual services, and in 2021, we did limited reopening in February in a couple of sites. And last year we had a moderate reopening with 13 sites, but we’ve kept that hybrid model.
United Way of King County: For someone who is interested but still pondering, what would you tell them?
Casey Lantz: You know what? We haven’t started training yet, so come on join a training, talk to volunteers. It’s a really good opportunity to sit at a table and meet people, make friends with your fellow volunteers. And honestly, if you’re into social causes it’s a good way to meet other people who are like-minded in social justice.
There are tons of reasons [to volunteer], and it’s very esoteric, the connection between poverty and taxes. But once you are in it and you see how much refunds affect the people who you tell … they will get refunds, you can really see the impact of what these tax credits do. It really gets you personally invested, and the next year, if you come back, you see that person again probably, and you can say, “Hi, how’s your spouse?” “How’s your mom?” “How are your kids?” It’s a really good way to connect with people.
To join our Free Tax Preparation program team, click here.