Thanks to Philanthropic Research, Inc. (PRI) and the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), anyone with access to the Internet can review program and financial information for 61,000 private foundations.
On March 20, PRI and the NCCS posted images of the foundations' latest Forms 990-PF, the annual information return the organizations file with the Internal Revenue Service. The full collection of the Form 990-PF images is available at both PRI's GuideStar Web site, www.guidestar.org, and at NCCS's research and policy-oriented Web site.
Although the 990-PF has always been a public document, foundations now must make it available on demand. This mandate, which went into effect on March 13, is similar to the disclosure rules that require public charities to make copies of their Forms 990 widely available.
According to Buzz Schmidt, founder and president of PRI, "Making the 990-PF forms available on the GuideStar Web site furthers our efforts to make the nonprofit sector more transparent and accountable. Posting the 990-PF images is entirely consistent with our overall mission of promoting philanthropy by providing information that will help donors, institutional funders, and charities become more informed, effective, and efficient."
Schmidt maintains that foundations will benefit from having their returns available on the Internet. "Instead of printing out multiple copies of its 990-PF—which in some cases are hundreds of pages long—a foundation can direct requestors to the GuideStar or NCCS Web sites." A foundation can also use its Form 990-PF as an informational tool. "By clearly defining its mission on the form, the foundation can communicate directly with the nonprofit organizations applying for funding."
Elizabeth T. Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute, points out that the general public will also benefit from having access to the 990-PF images. "Timely, in-depth disclosure of this public information will enhance understanding of how foundations operate—their structures, missions, investment income, administrative costs, and interaction with the government and the business sectors."
Boris sees an added advantage to posting the images: "The wide availability and ease of access of Form 990-PF will strengthen public confidence in the charitable sector."
Robert G. Donnalley, Jr. of the Cory & Bob Donnalley Charitable Foundation agrees. "I believe that an informed public can make better decisions about charitable giving with more information." Donnalley also feels a responsibility to make information about his foundation available. "I have been given a special advantage under our tax codes that have allowed my wife and I to create our own Foundation. The foundation's tax return should be...available to the public. Charities (and our neighbors) should have the right to see how we are utilizing our funds so that they might be able to tailor an appeal based on our interests."
The nonprofit sector as a whole gains when charities' Forms 990 and foundations' Forms 990-PF are easily accessible. Researchers, policy analysts, institutional funders, nonprofit managers, and donors will be able to review conveniently and in detail the programs and financial activities of charities and foundations. Public charities will have access to information about potential funders, and foundations will be able to understand their own work in the context of that of their colleagues.
This is the second time that PRI and the NCCS have collaborated to make nonprofits' financial information available to the general public and individuals in the nonprofit sector. On October 18, 1999, PRI and the NCCS posted images of the IRS Forms 990 for the more than 200,000 public charities required to file the 990 with the IRS.