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:
- Cinthia Schuman Ottinger, Nonprofit Data Project and Deputy Director for Philanthropy Programs for the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation;
- Beth Simone Noveck, Director of The GovLab, Professor at New York University and former Director and U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the White House Open Government Initiative;
- David Borenstein, Director of Data Science at Charity Navigator; and
- Neville Vakharia, Assistant Professor and Research Director of the Arts Administration Program at the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, Drexel University.
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?
- See details and register here for the Nonprofit Open Data Collective‘s upcoming Form 990 Vali-Datathon on November 1-2, 2017 at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. (participants can also join this effort remotely)
Looking for more information on this topic? The following resources are recommended by our featured speakers:
- Nonprofit Data Project
- A collaborative initiative to discuss and assess the U.S. nonprofit data collection system, spearheaded by the Aspen Institute‘s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation
- View project history and updates
- Read about the program’s Nonprofit Datathon, held in May 2016 and led by David Borenstein of Charity Navigator and Jesse Lecy of Arizona State University
- Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data
- 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
- Charity Navigator @ Github
- Charity Navigator’s code (the extraction scripts) for working with Form 990 data shared via AWS
- 990 Decoder
- Charity Navigator’s open toolkit for exploring Form 990 data shared via AWS
- Nonprofit Ecosystem Research and Visualization: Philadelphia
- 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
- BRIDGE Registry
- Learn more about the Basic Registry of Identified Global Entities, a project of Foundation Center, GlobalGiving, GuideStar, and TechSoup, as it pertains to nonprofit identification and information sharing across the global social sector
- Read perspectives and updates on BRIDGE via Digital Impact here
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.