Podcast & Video: The Open 990 & U.S. Nonprofits

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Listen to Lucy Bernholz, Cinthia Schuman Ottinger, Beth Simone Noveck, David Borenstein, and Neville Vakharia discuss the new machine-readable Form 990 and the opportunities and challenges presented to U.S. nonprofits and civil society.


Recent regulatory changes have made e-filed Form 990s, the data-rich annual financial disclosure forms for U.S. nonprofits, publicly available as machine-readable digital data. With this change, the floodgates are opening for social sector practitioners, researchers, infrastructure organizations, and others to more readily access and make use of this data.

Digital Impact hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by the new “open” Form 990 and next steps for nonprofits and digital civil society in the age of open data.

Moderated by Lucy Bernholz, Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab, the panel included:

The panel discussed the advocacy work and policy changes behind the digitization and “opening” of the Form 990; how nonprofits, researchers, infrastructure organizations, government agencies, and regulators are or could be using this data; and some of the key challenges, questions, and potential risks involved, including the ongoing efforts to organize and clean the data provided by the IRS.

Watch the full discussion using the media player above, or listen to the podcast by using the audio player below or by visiting the Digital Impact podcast on iTunes.


A few highlights:

  • Open data means not only more data but wider participation: Beth Simone Noveck discussed how open, “democratized” data like that of e-filed Form 990 data can engage more and different people in the social sector, bringing new questions, perspectives, ideas, and innovations for sector advancement.
  • Opportunities abound: Noting that we’ve seen just a “trickle” so far from the coming flood of Form 990 data, Neville Vakharia shared examples (see below) of how he and fellow researchers and practitioners are using data from the Form 990 and other public sources to support sector-wide knowledge sharing and capacity building.
  • E-filed Form 990 data is open but messy: In parsing the details of e-filed Form 990 data (which the IRS initially released with 26 (!) different XML schemas), David Borenstein described the collaborative work being done to help users clean and organize the datasets for more efficient application (see below to learn more and get involved).
  • Additional policy and process changes are needed to improve outcomes: In describing the advocacy work involved in opening and optimizing Form 990 data, Cinthia Schuman Ottinger expressed the need for a feedback loop between the IRS and the growing community of Form 990 data users, and she discussed how increased attention to the data may incentivize higher quality Form 990 input from nonprofits.
  • Lies, damn lies, and statistics: Noting that open data has the potential to bring both positive and negative outcomes, the panel discussed possible dangers, such as the risk of misinterpretation and deliberate misrepresentation of the data.

Interested in supporting this work?

Looking for more information on this topic? The following resources are recommended by our featured speakers:

  • Nonprofit Open Data Collective @ GitHub
    • The repository for the Master Concordance File, path directory, data dictionary, and other resources developed and distributed by the Nonprofit Open Data Collective for working with e-filed Form 990 data shared by the IRS through Amazon Web Services (AWS)
    • Read more about the Nonprofit Open Data Collective here and here
  • 990 Decoder
    • Charity Navigator’s open toolkit for exploring Form 990 data shared via AWS
  • Open Data’s Impact
    • Explore case studies of how open data is creating opportunities for improvement and innovation across government, private industry, and civil society

Panelist responses to unanswered attendee questions during the discussion:

We did not observe a 990 data update on AWS in August 2017, but there was an update in September. Does anyone know what happened?

“With the DVD data, we have seen occasional delays in shipping. It is not unexpected to see similar issues with the AWS eFile data.” – David Borenstein

Has any work been done to de-duplicate or consolidate near-identical organization names within the 990 data?

“It’s best to work by EIN, not name. Absent trademark protection, there is little that stops two organizations from adopting similar names. This is especially true across state lines. When you see multiple filings from the same year with the same EIN, it’s typically because the same organization filed multiple times, either by accident or in order to amend its return.” – David Borenstein

“Agreed. We treat a unique EIN as a unique entity. Even if it seems like a duplicate organization within a state, it’s often because they have created an additional corporate entity for another purpose (e.g. a nonprofit hospital that creates a separate nonprofit clinic or outreach program, etc.)” – Neville Vakharia


Have thoughts or case studies to share regarding the Form 990 and open nonprofit data? Chime in below with a comment.

Have topics or ideas to suggest for future virtual roundtables? Contact us at hello@digitalimpact.org.

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