Volunteer Spotlight: Helping Put Cash in People’s Pockets

A conversation with Brigade member Diana Laster on scaling GetYourRefund with help from volunteers across the country

Our team has written here before about how the power of flexible cash can help people attain financial stability. Last year, our exploration of the workforce system led us to a new opportunity to put people first by helping them access the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in the country, but one in five eligible households wasn’t claiming it—and that was before the COVID-19 crisis arrived. We knew that in order to help people claim the EITC and other crucial tax credits, they would need a way to file their taxes that is free, trustworthy, clarifying, thorough, and accessible. And that’s why we chose to work with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program providers to rapidly scale our GetYourRefund service to help close that gap.

We knew from the beginning of GetYourRefund that we wanted to provide opportunities for our Brigade Network to bring their skills and local context to the project. When COVID-19 hit, we got tons of requests from VITA providers to partner with us on GetYourRefund, as they had to transition their in-person tax clinics to online virtually overnight. Thankfully, our volunteer team (working alongside our staff team) were able to quickly scale up to onboard them, provide them with comprehensive documentation, and help them train their volunteers with a set of video modules, and more. More than 175 volunteers signed up for these efforts, spread across eight volunteer teams. Some volunteers even became VITA-certified themselves so they could directly help filers with their tax questions!



So with all of that, how do we keep everyone working in the same direction? Meet Diana Laster, one of our earliest volunteers, who serves as the project management lead for the GetYouRefund volunteer team. Diana and the rest of the team have done an incredible amount to help Code for America put money in the pockets of people who need it, and we couldn’t have assisted nearly as many people without them.

What’s your background, and how did you first get involved with the Brigade Network?

I’m a product manager in health technology. I first got involved this past February by attending a Civic Hack Night at Code for San Jose. While I had never been involved in civic tech before, I thought it could be a good way to contribute my skills to have a larger impact.

How much did you know about the Earned Income Tax Credit before you started collaborating with us on this project?

I knew next to nothing about the EITC.

In your own words, why do you think this project is important for people to work on?

When I learned about how large a gap there was between the amount of money people were eligible to get and the amount they were actually getting, $10.5 billion, I had a visceral reaction. It felt wrong that so much needed cash was being left on the table when it should be going to the low-income folks who are working so hard just to make ends meet for themselves and their families. By working on GetYourRefund, you are literally fighting poverty in this country. It’s hard to imagine something more important you could be doing with your time!

What has your experience been like filing for taxes in the past? Have your thoughts around tax filing changed while volunteering on this project?

My personal tax filing experiences have been pretty mundane. It is generally time-consuming and a chore, but I go in with confidence that I will get it done, and it feels like any other task on my to-do list. But since I started working on this project, I’ve seen that tax filing comes with a lot of emotional hardship for many Americans. It’s filled with burdens and complexities, and can inspire existential fear in people who haven’t filed taxes in past years. On the flip side, filing and then receiving the EITC can give them a degree of financial stability that’s especially needed during our current unemployment crisis.

GIF that scrolls through the table of contents of the GetYouRefund partner FAQ doc
One of the volunteer teams has been working on proactively answering partners’ questions via improved documentation. In just two weeks, they quadrupled the amount of content in our FAQs.

What’s been the biggest challenge of organizing the GetYourRefund volunteer team? What’s been the most rewarding thing about it?

The biggest challenge of organizing the volunteer team has been the learning curve to understand how GetYourRefund works. It involves not only understanding VITA processes and roles, but also the different components of the GetYourRefund product (client experience, partner experience, client and partner-facing systems, back-end systems). That said, we’ve made big strides as a team in building out training resources and processes, so we can now ramp up new volunteers more quickly.

And there are so many rewarding parts! I would say it comes down to mission, impact, and collaboration. It’s so rewarding to hear directly from partners how much they appreciate GetYourRefund and how supported they feel by being able to work with all of us. It is also rewarding to hear the outcomes of the work, to learn that millions of dollars are being distributed to our clients, and to know that we are helping the people who are suffering the most during the COVID-19 pandemic. Outside of the mission and impact, I also really enjoy working closely with other volunteers and seeing them grow. They get inspired by what we’re doing, and then they start contributing in a way that provides a ton of value to partners. Some of them emerge as leaders of their own initiatives, rallying other volunteers around a common goal. It’s an incredible evolution to be a part of, and it all happens at lightning speed.

In addition to this project, you’re also involved with Code for San Jose. What kinds of other projects are Code for San Jose members working on to help get people through this crisis?

Code for San Jose has been really active in both leading and collaborating on COVID-19 relief projects. Here are a few from our latest newsletter:

  • We’re collaborating with Code for San Francisco and Open Oakland on Bay Area Pandemic Dashboard (Panda), where you can find COVID-19 data dashboards for Bay Area counties, and FAQ related to COVID-19.
  • We helped curate content for the City of San Jose’s resident assistant chatbot, which is now live on SiliconValleyStrong.org.
  • We worked with the City of San Jose to improve accessibility, mobile responsiveness, and user experience with the tool Find Free Food Near Me, which you can also view on SiliconValleyStrong.org.

Want to help people claim tax refunds? Apply to be a GetYourRefund volunteer.

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