Each April 15, millions of tax-paying (and, possibly tax-fearing?) Americans know their income taxes must be filed. There was a bit of a reprieve this year, however, as Emancipation Day provided an April 15 holiday for federal workers in Washington, D.C., and the deadline was extended to the following Monday.
While individual taxpayers rejoiced over this small break, hundreds of thousands of nonprofit organizations across the country are already in full gear producing their key IRS filing – the Form 990 and its smaller variations (990-EZ, 990-N) that for many are due May 15.
The 990, like any government oversight, started well intended and small. All the way back in 1941 the Form 990 or “Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax” was launched in two glorious pages of simplicity with three yes/no questions, an income statement, and balance sheets.
Today, the primary 990 form required for most tax-exempt organizations with annual gross receipts of $200,000 or more, or assets of $500,000, has ballooned with its arduous structure and lengthy “schedule” attachments.
Case-in-point, I recently visited the Foundation Center, which posts free 990s, to look up a favorite healthcare nonprofit I’ve worked with before and tried – in vain – to read though the entire 98-page PDF!
Yes, 990s include a voluminous amount of financial and organizational data that most readers, quite frankly, won’t slog through. However, this organization’s 990 – and yours, too – offers some key opportunities to focus on storytelling (with data as a supporting backdrop) that could really pay off.
AICPA Insights reinforced this notion in a recent blog post that states, “Because Form 990 is available to the public, fundraising organizations that view it as merely another compliance requirement are missing a golden opportunity to shine a light on their organization’s accomplishments and attract support for their causes.”
For example, the Organization Summary in Part 1 sets the tone for the entire form – this is where you describe your mission and “most significant activities.” It’s a great place to be descriptive and provide clarity. But keep in mind, too much information there can confuse readers, so keep it simple and brief.
Part III’s Statement of Program Service Achievements section is just the place to start elaborating and really utilizing numbers to support the multiple narratives you likely have. This also presents an ideal opportunity to collaborate with your communications and program services directors for really polished content.
For example, the healthcare nonprofit I mentioned succinctly said for one program that it’s outpatient services span “seven health centers across the LA area,” then listed several primary service types and their total number of patients served measured by days, annual center total visits, and total surgeries all supported by the organization. Together, it tied back quite well to the mission, and was a perfect setup for their Statement of Revenue information later in Part VIII.
Naturally, a tax form like the 990 enforces some rigidity, but there’s wiggle room to expand and even push readers to additional content. For example, you’re asked to list your own website domain on the first page. As you’re refreshing or updating your 990, make sure to sync it back with your website where your archives of past 990s should also be posted. Since prospective supporters may find your website from a variety of sources, it’s still the single best place to present the expansive, authentic story that includes key financial metrics tied to measured impact.
The availability of the 990 is increasing each year as research sites like GuideStar or Charity Navigator and many online fundraising/crowdfunding platforms provide easy links to them to form a complete profile.
Studies are showing that prospective donors (especially Millennials) indicate they value transparency and care about financial metrics more than ever. They have heard a lot about overhead, program spend, and expensive fundraising and may be using the 990 as their primary source for that information.
Legislators, too, are supporting efforts to generally expand the scope and access of financial data for nonprofits. In California a recent bill was drafted (but, didn’t move forward) that would have required nonprofits to produce a special financial disclosure section prominently displayed on their website. Others in the federal government are doubling down to make 990s and their data even more accessible – there are proposals for requiring electronic filing for all forms in part to increase search ability by all.
Clearly, the 990 is the minimal requirement, and you’re opportunity to shine as an organization starts inside of it. It’s similar to what public companies face with SEC earning reports, where numbers don’t tell the entire story and management needs to provide additional context. Treat this as a similar opportunity to present your org’s story and back it up with strong financial data that, if supplemented well on your own website, can provide prospective supporters and stakeholders with what they need – trust that starts with transparency and finishes with measured impacts of your mission.