One rabble rouser has been trying to get the IRS to make individual nonprofit tax forms available in an electronic format anyone can easily search. What may seem to a casual observer like a minor battle would actually be revolutionary for the entire sector.
Quick disclosure: I hate 990s. Not the concept of them, of course, as they are the chief method of accountability that nonprofits entities must file annually in exchange for tax exemption. But I hate just about everything else about them.
Covering philanthropy and working with nonprofits, I’ve spent so many hours popping open PDF after PDF—old, grainy scans of these tax forms—squinting and Control-F-ing my way through past giving, foundation by foundation, year by year. So when I read about efforts to improve the accessibility of these forms, my heart races, and yours should too.
I’d go so far as to say getting 990s to a universal state, easily searchable by computer, is central to the future success of philanthropy and nonprofits—and the shifting relationship between government and private wealth. Stay with me.
Briefly, in case you’re unfamiliar, 990s in various forms hold annual financial, leadership, and major staffing information on organizations (with some exceptions) that take the nonprofit tax exemption. If any such organization doesn’t make this information available on its website or in annual reports, the 990 is the only way to scrutinize its activity.