Saturday, May 7, 2011

What Goes Into A Punch

I just read this blog post by Chris Brogan and thought how timely it was for me. 

It's a short post, so I'll let you read it rather than trying to extract a lot from it here.  One paragraph is particularly important:
But with every success I’ve ever had, it started with work. I had to start somewhere. I had to accept that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and then I had to work harder and harder. 
Each program I run could be improved, even though they each are successful to some degree.  They can each be more successful if I accept that they aren't where I want them to be and work to get them where I think they should be.

I'm beginning to write a report on the recently-ended VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program I coordinate with the help of a small group of dedicated and talented volunteers, a lot of support from the IRS, and growing support from the Mass Dept. of Revenue.  We do a good job and we help a lot of people.  But we can serve more people if we improve some of our internal processes and find a way to fund my position for more hours each tax season and fund an Assistant Coordinator part-time for 3-4 months.  We need to begin earlier, but funding doesn't permit the extra time needed for me to take time away from the other programs I handle as early as needed. 

It's a problem I've tried to tackle with more effective procedures and tools, but they can only take you so far.  Now it's time to tackle the real roadblock - funding support at the right amount for the many hours necessary for self-training (I have to recertify each year), volunteer recruitment and training, and planning/preparation with other agencies so they actually help us with getting taxpayers informed and to us (or us to them). 

This is just one of several programs, but has quantifiable numbers and data from other VITA sites doing the same thing that can help me analyze our improvements.  It's always helpful if you can quantify your results.

Chris also speaks about delaying gratification while your work on your punch.  I agree with him.  We started out with a small program and made some improvements.  The next time, we had greater numbers and discovered we could improve even more.  In our 4th year, we increased our production by almost 70% over the previous year.  If we had tried to reach those numbers in the first year or two, we could have made a real mess of it and not served low-income taxpayers very well.  Instead, by building slowly and adding other services slowly, we are able to help people with their taxes, food stamps, and health insurance needs in one appointment.  The volunteers don't feel overwhelmed, as they have learned at a reasonable pace how to build this into their tasks.  And they have suggested some of the improvements that we now use, providing better buy-in that this is all very doable and makes sense.  It's pretty important that volunteers and staff feel as if what they are doing actually makes sense!

Our punch? 
  • More people served and served very well
  • Expanded tax offerings (post-season returns, past-year returns, and help with special situations)
  • Expanded non-tax offerings (health and nutrition applications and referrals for advocacy)
  • A growing set of data around taxpayer/client needs (for referrals to other agency services)
  • Better coordination with other agencies that serve the same taxpayers
  • Referrals from other agencies 
We're pretty happy with that punch, but we're not complacent.   We're always working to improve, be more agile, and better able to respond to changing issues or needs.  Practice, practice, practice; that's what it takes.

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