Unlocking the Potential of Open 990 Data

Article by Cinthia Schuman Ottinger & Jeff Williams: “As the movement to expand public use of nonprofit data collected by the Internal Revenue Service advances, it’s a good time to review how far the social sector has come and how much work remains to reach the full potential of this treasure trove…Organizations have employed open Form 990 data in numerous ways, including to:

  • Create new tools for donors.For instance, the Nonprofit Aid Visualizer, a partnership between Candid and Vanguard Charitable, uses open 990 data to find communities vulnerable to COVID-19, and help address both their immediate needs and long-term recovery. Another tool, COVID-19 Urgent Service Provider Support Tool, developed by the consulting firm BCT Partners, uses 990 data to direct donors to service providers that are close to communities most affected by COVID-19.
  • More efficiently prosecute charitable fraud. This includes a campaign by the New York Attorney General’s Office that recovered $1.7 million from sham charities and redirected funds to legitimate groups.
  • Generate groundbreaking findings on fundraising, volunteers, equity, and management. researcher at Texas Tech University, for example, explored more than a million e-filed 990s to overturn long-held assumptions about the role of cash in fundraising. He found that when nonprofits encourage noncash gifts as opposed to only cash contributions, financial contributions to those organizations increase over time.
  • Shed light on harmful practices that hurt the poor. A large-scale investigative analysis of nonprofit hospitals’ tax forms revealed that 45 percent of them sent a total of $2.7 billion in medical bills to patients whose incomes were likely low enough to qualify for free or discounted care. When this practice was publicly exposed, some hospitals reevaluated their practices and erased unpaid bills for qualifying patients. The expense of mining data like this previously made such research next to impossible.
  • Help donors make more informed giving decisions. In hopes of maximizing contributions to Ukrainian relief efforts, a record number of donors are turning to resources like Charity Navigator, which can now use open Form 990 data to evaluate and rate a large number of charities based on finances, governance, and other factors. At the same time, donors informed by open 990 data can seek more accountability from the organizations they support. For example, anti-corruption researchers scouring open 990 data and other records uncovered donations by Russian oligarchs aligned with President Putin. This pressured US nonprofits that accepted money from the oligarchs to disavow this funding…(More)”.