On June 16, 2016, the IRS announced that it will be making Form 990s available in machine-readable format through Amazon Web Services. While this information has always been available to the public, it was previously only accessible in PDF format, making searching or viewing data in bulk nearly impossible. The IRS announcement is in response to a January 2015 ruling by the Northern District of California that the IRS was required, under the Freedom of Information Act, to make Form 990 data available in a machine-readable format. The lawsuit was brought by government transparency group PublicResource.org. (See Public.Resource.Org v. IRS, case number 3:13-cv-02789, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division).
The vast majority of tax-exempt organizations are required to file a Form 990, which is the IRS’s primary tool for gathering information about these organizations. The documents made available will include all Forms 990, 990-EZ (filed by smaller organizations), and 990-PF (filed by private foundations) electronically filed with the IRS from 2011 to the present, as well as related schedules. (Approximately two-thirds of all Form 990s are electronically filed.) Certain donor information, as well as personally identifiable tax identification numbers, will not be released, in order to prevent misuse of the data.
Form 990s include detailed information regarding an organization’s finances, board members, executive compensation, fundraising activities, grant-making, and other programs and operations. Making this information available in a searchable and machine-readable format will give the media, charity watchdog groups, researchers and the public easier access to the data, allowing them to identify and track trends across the nonprofit sector, as well as catch inconsistencies in reporting. Similarly, state regulators will be more easily able to identify markers on the Form 990 that may signal potential embezzlement, unreported self-dealing, or other wrongdoing, or that an organization is in financial trouble. This increased transparency may lead to greater scrutiny of the returns filed by tax-exempt organizations and of the nonprofit sector as a whole.