Every year, thousands of lower income Canadian families miss out on about $5,000 in benefits and refunds because they do not file their taxes.
It is easy to understand why. Tax filing can be burdensome and complex. It is voluntary if you do not owe any money, and the benefits of filing are sometimes unclear. Community-based organizations like the Oak Park Neighbourhood Centre (OPNC) in Oakville, Ontario have stepped in to help. OPNC runs free, year-round tax filing clinics where residents can get help from a certified tax filer. Their impact is enormous. This year, between May and the end of September, OPNC helped residents access almost $1.4 million in tax benefits and refunds. The average amount filers received was $4,775, which might mean months of rents, groceries, and utility bills paid.
Like many small, nonprofit organizations, OPNC has a limited outreach budget, and can sometimes struggle to get residents who need help to take up their services, even though they are free and open to just about anyone. That’s exactly the type of problem that behavioural insights can help solve. Applying a more nuanced and realistic model of how people make decisions can increase the chance that people learn about community services, understand their value, and sign up.
Historically, it has mostly been governments and large companies that apply behavioural insights, even though the approach can make such an impactful difference to smaller, community-based organizations. United Way Halton Hamilton (UWHH) wanted to change that. UWHH convened a group of organizations including OPNC and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), then secured a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to demonstrate the impact that behavioural insights can have on local financial empowerment services. The overall grant objective is to support community members’ economic well being and to build long-term behavioural science capacity within the non-profit sector and across the wide range of issues that UWHH invests in, from food security to mental health.
When BIT started working with OPNC, we realized that current communications about the free tax filing service could be expanded and improved. In particular, we wanted to encourage OPNC members to really consider the benefits of using the tax filing service. So BIT designed a new communication, an email, using a behavioural insights approach called enhanced active choice. This approach encourages people to make an active decision about what they want to do, while drawing out the implications of saying “no.”
However, BIT, UWHH and OPNC were not sure if this approach would work in practice, so we ran an experiment to find out. We used a randomized controlled trial to test out whether more people would respond to an enhanced active choice email, sign up for the tax filing service, and, most importantly, get their refunds and benefits. As a comparison point, we used an email that matched the tone and style of past OPNC communications and did not apply behavioural insights. Running this kind of experiment was important to answer the research question, but also for the broader initiative. It showed that rigorous evaluation was possible to achieve with modest resources; a simple spreadsheet and an email list.
The results were exciting and demonstrate the potential that behavioural insights can have for community organizations like OPNC. About four times as many people responded to the active choice email and ended up filing their taxes with OPNC during the 6 week trial period. This relatively simple and costless email change may have helped Halton families access more than $67,000 in tax benefits and refunds. That’s a sizable return on investment!
This was a small-scale experiment featuring outreach to fewer than 750 people. Even in the group that got the new email, very few ended up filing their taxes through OPNC. That means there is still quite a bit of uncertainty about the effect the new email had. The difference between the response rates to the two different emails was statistically significant, but the increase in tax filing rates could have been due to random chance. In the future, BIT and UWHH are planning to run these experiments across multiple community organizations to build capacity and reach stronger research conclusions.
These results also indicate that it will take more than just improved communications to get everyone accessing the benefits that their families need. Shortly after the project concluded, the Government of Canada announced that it would work to “introduce free, automatic tax filing for simple returns,” which could be an important step in the right direction.
OPNC’s work on this project is changing how the team thinks about communicating with its members. In the words of Michelle Knoll, Executive Director of OPNC, “We realize now that even our emails can be a big barrier or a big help. We’re going to be applying behavioural insights like active choice a lot more.”
For UWHH, it’s a great first step in the right direction. “Successful engagement means people already have one foot in the door to getting supports, and these small, evidence-based changes can create a relatively huge difference to the people we serve,” says Vivien Underdown, Senior Manager at UWHH, and project manager for the collaborative OTF grant. “We’re excited to continue working with our partners to research how behavioural insights might help both community members and nonprofits flourish.”
To learn more about this project, contact:
Sasha Tregebov, BIT Canada at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Knoll, OPNC at email@example.com
Vivien Underdown, UWHH at firstname.lastname@example.org