The Importance of Opening Nonprofit 990 Information
An article, and the idea behind it, we posted on our Tumblr has been making the rounds over the last several weeks – making nonprofit 990 forms and results more accessible to the general public. As it currently stands, nonprofit 990 information is available to a select few, and in a very inaccessible format. While someone could spend hours digging through PDF files or TIFF images of recent 990 information, it is impossible at this point to index or search through this data. Making this data open, accessible, and interactive is essential as nonprofits move to an era of greater transparency and efficiency.
First – a better explanation of the problem as it currently stands. As has been spoken about here before, transparency and accountability are becoming more and more important to donors, volunteers, and grant-makers alike. Nonprofits are being held by ever higher standards in order to compete for fewer and fewer dollars. And while services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator exist, it is still difficult to truly access information on the impact and success of each nonprofit towards their given mission that is unbiased.
Additionally, research into efficacy of nonprofits, in use of donor dollars and in how they are affecting change in their communities, is limited due to lack of large scale data available. Understanding the marketplace, from an organizational perspective, is critical to making lasting change and impact.
Several agencies have had the arduous job of transcribing this 990 information over the years (no small feat, in that each year’s records cost over $2,000 each). More recently, Public.Resource.org has done an amazing job of buying the information from the US Government, cataloging it, and making it easier for search engines to index this information. But it is still exceptionally difficult to really do anything with this data.
If we truly are living in the next generation of nonprofits and big data, how is one of the biggest data points that is already available, their 990 tax information, not searchable, not indexable, and not researchable?
This Forbes article takes it one step further – why not, in addition to creating this national database, include a wiki like element that allows donors, grantors, and volunteers the ability to ask questions and request clarifications. If nonprofits are hoping to be more transparent, what an amazing opportunity to be able to speak directly with those who have questions.
With other government agencies in recent years opening up their data, including the Patent & Trademark Office, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, it is not unfeasible to create the effort to release this information. Additionally, with other large data sets already open, there is an opportunity to combine the 990 data with other datasets, such as those on government spending, to better understand the relationship between public and private dollars in providing social services
This information is crucial because it will make the relationships that nonprofits have with donors, corporations, volunteers, and constituents all the better. So what is holding us back?
We are by no means experts in the arena – but we are concerned users in the space. We have used nonprofit 990 information to assist our nonprofit clients, we have used it in making decisions on personal donations, and we have used it to assess the health of certain areas of the field. And while we may be unique in our interest in releasing this information, we truly believe that accessibility of this information could revolutionize how nonprofits are held accountable to their donors, to their constituents, and to their mission.