Last week, the IRS began to release tax-exempt organizations’ digital Form 990 information in a machine-friendly format. This change will make it easier for the public to access and analyze 990s, which are the primary disclosure documents for tax-exempt organizations and contain a variety of information on finances, board members and officers, executive pay, fundraising expenses, and other operational aspects.
According to this Chronicle of Philanthropy article, the material will be available through the Public Data Sets area of Amazon Web Services. It will include not only information from the full Form 990, but also information from the 990-EZ filed by smaller organizations, and the 990-PF filed by private foundations. The IRS is releasing the data in response to a federal court ruling last year.
Previously, the forms were available only as PDF documents, which aren’t searchable without some extra steps. “With e-file data, you can easily and precisely extract individual items on the form,” Carl Malamud, an open-government advocate and the president of Public.Resource.org, wrote in an email. The nonprofit works to make public information more accessible.
Researchers and charity watchdogs are optimistic that the more easily accessible data might shed some light on accounting inconsistencies throughout the sector, and could help analysts spot organizations that are at risk of shutting down due to financial difficulties, or are undergoing issues with embezzlement or self-dealing.
However, the release only covers returns that were filed electronically. Nearly a third of 990s were filed on paper in 2015, and that data will still be harder to access and analyze. To that end, some industry insiders are hoping that legislative efforts to require mandatory e-filing will gain traction.