Brad Smith at Glass Pockets (Foundation Center): “The tranquil world of America’s foundations is about to be shaken, but if you read the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) new study — Sharing What Matters, Foundation Transparency — you would never know it.
Don’t get me wrong. That study, like everything CEP produces, is carefully researched, insightful and thoroughly professional. But it misses the single biggest change in foundation transparency in decades: the imminent release by the Internal Revenue Service of foundation 990-PF (and 990) tax returns as machine-readable open data.
Clara Miller, President of the Heron Foundation, writes eloquently in her manifesto, Building a Foundation for the 21St Century: “…the private foundation model was designed to be protective and separate, much like a terrarium.”
Terrariums, of course, are highly “curated” environments over which their creators have complete control. The CEP study, proves that point, to the extent that much of the study consists of interviews with foundation leaders and reviews of their websites as if transparency were a kind of optional endeavor in which foundations may choose to participate, if at all, and to what degree.
To be fair, CEP also interviewed the grantees of various foundations (sometimes referred to as “partners”), which helps convey the reality that foundations have stakeholders beyond their four walls. However, the terrarium metaphor is about to become far more relevant as the release of 990 tax returns as open data will literally make it possible for anyone to look right through those glass walls to the curated foundation world within.
What Is Open Data?
It is safe to say that most foundation leaders and a fair majority of their staff do not understand what open data really is. Open data is free, yes, but more importantly it is digital and machine-readable. This means it can be consumed in enormous volumes at lightning speed, directly by computers.
Once consumed, open data can be tagged, sorted, indexed and searched using statistical methods to make obvious comparisons while discovering previously undetected correlations. Anyone with a computer, some coding skills and a hard drive or cloud storage can access open data. In today’s world, a lot of people meet those requirements, and they are free to do whatever they please with your information once it is, as open data enthusiasts like to say, “in the wild.”
What is the Internal Revenue Service Releasing?
Thanks to the Aspen Institute’s leadership of a joint effort – funded by foundations and including Foundation Center, GuideStar, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and others – the IRS has started to make some 1,000,000 Form 990s and 40,000 Form 990PF available as machine-readable open data.
Previously, all Form 990s had been released as image (TIFF) files, essentially a picture, making it both time-consuming and expensive to extract useful data from them. Credit where credit is due; a kick in the butt in the form of a lawsuit from open data crusader Carl Malamud helped speed the process along.
The current test phase includes only those tax returns that were digitally filed by nonprofits and community foundations (990s) and private foundations (990PFs). Over time, the IRS will phase in a mandatory digital filing requirement for all Form 990s, and the intent is to release them all as open data. In other words, that which is born digital will be opened up to the public in digital form. Because of variations in the 990 forms, getting the information from them into a database will still require some technical expertise, but will be far more feasible and faster than ever before.
The work of organizations like Foundation Center– who have built expensive infrastructure in order to turn years of 990 tax returns into information that can be used by nonprofits looking for funding, researchers trying to understand the role of foundations and foundations, themselves, seeking to benchmark themselves against peers—will be transformed.
Work will shift away from the mechanics of capturing and processing the data to higher level analysis and visualization to stimulate the generation and sharing of new insights and knowledge. This will fuel greater collaboration between peer organizations, innovation, the merging of previous disparate bodies of data, better philanthropy, and a stronger social sector… (more)