Urban Wire Proposed Nonprofit Form 990 E-Filing Requirement Can Benefit Nonprofits and Their Funders
Thomas H. Pollak
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And you thought tax season was over.

That’s not the case for many nonprofits, for whom an important Form 990 filing deadline looms two weeks from today, on May 15.

The IRS Form 990 is a document that public charities are required to file annually for their special tax-exempt status. Financial and program data from these forms help inform the decisions of foundations, individual donors, policymakers at all levels of government, and nonprofit organizations themselves.

Form 990 data are also the lifeblood of several key nonprofit data providers, including GuideStar, the Foundation Center, Charity Navigator and the Urban Institute’s own National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS). Indeed, public access to data on the nonprofit sector allows a more complete understanding of the role and impact of nonprofits in America, but that access is limited by an antiquated filing system. Currently, forms filed via paper are processed as unsearchable PDFs, meaning the information on those forms is difficult to use in a meaningful way. If available as pure data, it can be easily combined and analyzed to look at financial trends, the nonprofit capacity of communities, and much more.

That’s why it’s thrilling to see the White House propose mandatory Form 990 e-filing in its Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, calling e-filing an “important step forward for transparency” by making nonprofit data easier to access and analyze for funders and researchers.

While the proposal appears relatively uncontroversial, concern has surfaced in the past that requiring nonprofits to file their Form 990 online would be too difficult or costly for small organizations that don’t have the money to pay a professional preparer. That argument rings hollow for three reasons.

  • E-filing is a simple process with a quick learning curve. Anybody who has e-filed their personal taxes — more than four out of five Americans as of last year — should be able to handle Form 990 e-filing with relative ease.
  • Electronic filing is no mystifying and opaque process to nonprofit executives or their paid preparers. More than half a million nonprofits currently e-file their Form 990 returns, and the smallest nonprofits with annual revenues under $50,000 are already required to file a Form 990-N “e-Postcard” electronically to verify that they’re still in business.
  • Form 990 e-filing services are available at little or no cost. NCCS provides such a service – our 990 Online system is easy to use and free for any organization with less than $100,000 in gross receipts. NCCS also offers technical assistance for those who need it. To help support the cost of maintaining the system and offering tech support, there is a modest sliding-scale fee for larger organizations, maxing out at $175 for the largest organizations with more than $50 million in revenue.

E-filing doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. And nonprofits themselves will benefit from this requirement, as e-filing has become both simpler and no more costly than paper filing in recent years. Ultimately, the mandate will both be a significant benefit to nonprofits and their funders and deepen understanding of the charitable sector as a whole.

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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Nonprofit data and statistics
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy