The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been an active supporter of Earned Income Tax Credit Campaigns across the United States. Building on existing services in their communities, these campaigns provide: (1) education and outreach to promote the EITC and other tax credits for qualified working-poor families; (2) free or low-priced quality tax preparation services; and (3) links to other programs and services so that tax filers can use their refunds to build financial assets.
While the campaigns have helped hundreds of thousands of low-income workers receive tens of millions in tax refunds, they have been expensive and labor-intensive to operate. Given the campaigns’ ambitious goals and limited resources, there is increasing interest in identifying alternative models that have greater potential for scale, sustainability and impact. Beginning in late 2003, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, working through the Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program, provided grants and technical assistance to a limited number of EITC campaigns to support the design, development and pilot implementation of innovative approaches to EITC outreach, tax preparation and asset development.
In 2005, five campaigns tested variations of three approaches to achieving scale, sustainability and impact. Those approaches involved partnerships with employers, government and commercial tax preparers. Over the course of the year, the Aspen Institute documented the design, implementation and results of each of pilots. This paper draws on all five experiences to extract common themes. The lessons learned can help expand our understanding of the challenge of scale for the community economic development field.
The starting point for approaching this topic is a framework developed by the Aspen Institute to describe how initiatives grow. The model proposes that it takes time to move to scale, and that critical steps along the journey – including standardization and infrastructure-building – are often left out in the rush to expand or replicate.
With this in mind, this paper draws on the five pilot experiences to examine the following questions:
How can we develop the infrastructure needed to bring community economic development efforts to scale?
What information or knowledge is missing that can help achieve scale?
What role does operational capacity play in the pursuit of scale?
What factors make a model scalable?
The answers to these questions, as informed by the EITC pilots and described here, are striking in how well they mirror current thinking in the private sector about growth and scale. Indeed, while the language and context of the nonprofit sector are different, the path to scale may be surprisingly similar. Taken together, information culled from the three sources – the Aspen framework, lessons from the pilots and private sector parallels – can help create a roadmap for next steps in the pursuit of scale in community economic development. (author introduction)