The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Making Your 990 Work for You


Do governmental forms give you the willies? Does preparing or reviewing your organization's IRS Form 990 strike terror into your heart? Don't despair. All you need is a little assistance and a new way to look at the forms.
Donors and grantmakers are coming to GuideStar in droves to see your information, so you want to get the most out of your 990. Don't think of it as just a financial reporting form—instead, look at it as one more way you can communicate effectively with these audiences. You can also provide context for these data by updating your organization's report page.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your organization's 990:

  • Share the form with your marketing, development, and communications officers
    If your accountant and chief executive officer are typically the only people in your organization who pay much attention to your 990, now is the perfect time to share this document with your marketing, development, and communications officers as well. They can help write clear narratives that add the much-needed context to the pages of 990 financials.

  • Use the correct form
    The Form 990 has changed over the years, so be sure to use the correct version for the year for which you are filing. Don't use software that includes more lines than the actual 990 requires. Some programs have a line 43f, which is not part of the form.

  • Protect your organization's address when necessary
    If your organization engages in work that protects the location of at-risk individuals (i.e., a battered women's shelter), do not put the actual address of your organization on the 990. Instead, use your mailing address or P.O. box.

  • Contributors, donors, and government grants are not public information
    Line 1d information is now shown on Schedule B and is clearly marked "not open for public inspection." For Schedule A, Part IV-A, lines 26b, 27a, and 28, you are required to prepare a written list of contributions relevant to these lines in case it is requested by the IRS, but you are no longer required to attach it to your Form 990. If you sprinkle this confidential information anywhere else in your return, you run a high risk of having it inadvertently released to the public.

  • Get the most out of Part III, your Statement of Program Service Accomplishments
    What is your organization's primary/exempt purpose? This is your mission statement. Don't let your accountant determine this. It should be concise (not a lengthy narrative), but it doesn't have to fit into the small space provided on the document itself. You can refer readers to an attached statement. If you refer readers to an attachment, on this line put: SEE STATEMENT 1.

    Describe your exempt-purpose achievements, both measurable and not measurable. This section supports your mission statement and gives you an opportunity to describe specific accomplishments. A supporting program service expense must follow each listing, so this section should include broad, well-explained categories.

  • Don't include Social Security Numbers
    The Social Security number of your Form 990 preparer, although a field on the 990, is not required when filing. Instruct your form preparer to leave it off if he/she does not want the Social Security number released to the public. Also, don't include Social Security numbers for any other persons you identify on the form.

    If you make scholarship, fellowship, or research grants to individuals, you are required to list them individually by name, address, and amount given, unless your organization is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. You are not, however, required to provide the recipients' Social Security numbers. Also, if you are reporting specific assistance to individuals on Line 23, you are not required to provide names and addresses.

  • Round your numbers
    Round numbers to the nearest dollar. There is no need to use decimal points.

  • Don't leave blanks
    An absence of information where it is required will create questions in many readers' minds. In general, fill in all the blanks, especially where you need to total various lines. Also, keep in mind that the IRS requires Parts II and VII to be filled out in the exact format, using the same categories, as specified on the form. Many organizations submit attachments that stray from the format.

  • Do not put more than one number in any box

  • Do not include bank account numbers on your 990

  • Protect the privacy of your officers, directors, trustees, and key employees
    Although these people need to be identified by name and address, the address listed should be where they receive company mail, not necessarily their home addresses. That means that board members do not have to include their home addresses in this section.

  • Remember that Form 2758, Application for Extension of Time To File, is also a public document
It takes a little time to do it right. And the payoff is fabulous: donors and grantmakers will be reading accurate, engaging information about your good work.

There, now. Feeling better about tackling that form?
Topics: IRS Form 990 Marketing Nonprofits