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Partners in Financial Empowerment-Intuit: Driving tax filing innovations for people with low incomes

29 October 2020
When the tax software firm Intuit first approached Prosper Canada in 2014 to explore a potential collaboration, we were excited to learn more about the work of its Financial Freedom Foundation, which had played a central role in advancing innovative tax filing assistance for people with low incomes in the United States.  
Tax filing is a critical gateway to income benefits for low- and moderate-income people in the United States and Canada, but an estimated $2+ billion a year in income benefits does not reach eligible Canadians each year, because some people have language, literacy, digital literacy, mobility, and other barriers that prevent them from tax filing and navigating complex benefit programs successfully on their own. 
To help tackle this challenge, Intuit’s Financial Freedom Foundation joined with St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to support Prosper Canada and researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital to develop an online Benefit Screening Tool (BST) that healthcare practitioners could use to screen patients having trouble making ends meet for additional income benefits they might be eligible for, but not getting. Together, Prosper Canada and St. Michael’s researchers tested the tool in multiple primary healthcare settings, confirming that patients saw value in this help, but also learning how to successfully integrate benefit screening into frontline healthcare delivery and identifying important improvements we could make to the Benefit Screening Tool.   
Building on this success, Prosper Canada, the Intuit Financial Freedom Foundation, and Intuit Canada began to identify additional steps we could take to expand vulnerable Canadians’ access to tax filing and benefit help in Canada and improve existing programs and services.    
We started with research to better understand the barriers people with low incomes face in tax filing and accessing benefits. This included tracking the tax filing journeys of 53 individuals with low incomes in 10 provinces and territories, surveying and interviewing community organizations across Canada that provide tax and benefit assistance, and an extensive literature review. The resulting insights can be found in our in Tax time insights and Income tax filing and benefits take-up reports. 
Understanding the importance of connecting and supporting Canada’s financial empowerment field, Intuit was also a proud event sponsor of the 2018 national ABLE Financial Empowerment Network Conference. With Intuit’s support, Prosper Canada also hosted a one-day national tax symposium in Ottawa for policy makers, leading community service providers, and researchers working to close Canada’s benefits take-up gap. Stakeholders shared emerging research, as well as innovative new tax filing and benefit assistance approaches, and discussed opportunities for coordinated action and future research.  
These ideas included two innovative tax filing services that grew into subsequent pilots undertaken with Intuit’s support. The first was Virtual File -- a new way to file taxes for homebound seniors. Prosper Canada, IFFF and Intuit Canada partnered with WoodGreen Community Services, a leading Toronto multi-service agency to design and pilot this service with seniors unable to access WoodGreen’s free in-person tax-filing services. WoodGreen social workers offered the service to homebound senior clients and supported them to file their taxes in real-time from their own homes with phone help from an Intuit Canada tax expert.  
The second innovative pilot was Supported Self-File – a new way to empower people with low-incomes and simple tax situations to file their own taxes. Prosper Canada, Intuit Canada and the Foundation again partnered with WoodGreen to design and pilot this new service for individuals who want to  file their own taxes but lack the skills and/or confidence to do so successfully. WoodGreen provided interested clients who were comfortable using a computer with a dedicated space, computer, free user-friendly tax preparation software from Intuit Canada, and light touch support if needed from WoodGreen and Intuit Canada volunteer tax experts – creating the ideal conditions for clients who were able to quickly learn to tax file with confidence. 
With the advent of COVID-19, these pilots proved invaluable in helping Prosper Canada and its community partners to quickly pivot and to help the Canada Revenue Agency to develop new virtual and hybrid tax filing assistance services to replace face-to-face services traditionally offered through its Community Volunteer Income Tax Program. Without Intuit’s support, these changes to meet urgent needs for assistance would not have been possible.    
With many community tax clinics closed, WoodGreen, Prosper Canada and Intuit quickly worked to adapt Supported Self-File, creating a new virtual version with enhanced free Intuit software and volunteer and client training and resources. The new program, Virtual Self-File is now being piloted by WoodGreen and two other community agencies, EBO in Ottawa and Family Services Thames Valley in London. 
COVID-19 continues to generate real challenges for vulnerable Canadians who need help to tax file to access and retain income benefits they need to meet basic needs. Intuit’s flexible support has enabled intensive cross-sector collaboration to help address these challenges – collaborations that have helped to inform federal contingency plans and communications that have helped hundreds of thousands of Canadians unable to tax file on time to retain their benefits and leading to active outreach by CRA to help those most in need. 
Looking back over our six years of collaboration with Intuit, we have been able to make a tangible difference in the lives of Canadians and to introduce innovations that have the potential to transform the lives of many more. Intuit’s partnership philosophy of building on shared values and goals, collaboration and innovation is shared by Prosper Canada and its community partners and is a winning formula for all Canadians.  
Resources supported by Intuit: 
Tax time insights (report)