ProPublica Announces Step Forward in Nonprofit Form 990 Analysis

August 10, 2017; ProPublica

ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer web-based application has been augmented with newly available Form 990 data from the IRS. The nonprofit news organization has added “raw data from more than 1.9 million electronically filed Form 990 documents dating back to 2010,” including new information on 132,000 nonprofits not previously available from the ProPublica website. Academic researchers and media covering nonprofits are likely to be especially happy with the development.

The new data and the ability to access data in XML machine-readable format was made available by the IRS after a long fight with public.resource.org. NPQ covered the years-long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and litigation (see here, here, and here) spearheaded by public.resource.org’s founder, Carl Malamud, to force the IRS to share publicly what it already had internally—machine-readable Form 990 information. The IRS first made the data available in 2016 using Amazon Web Services.

IRS Form 990 filings made by tax-exempt organizations including 501(c)(3) charities and other nonprofits have been available online in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format from sites including GuideStar, ProPublica, and the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) for years. According to Malamud, “Releasing the e-file data instead is vastly superior and will make the Form 990 a much more useful tool. XML data is machine-processable. You can instantly access the value of any specific field in a Form 990 (such as CEO compensation) from a computer program.”

ProPublica has updated Nonprofit Explorer with the machine-readable data, making it easier to copy and paste Form 990 information from the ProPublica website. Media reporters and researchers with relevant computer tools can download the XML data for comparative analysis. ProPublica plans to work on the Nonprofit Explorer interface in the coming months to add functionality and “new ways to explore and analyze tax-exempt organizations.”

ProPublica’s announcement may be a challenge to GuideStar, NCCS, and other Form 990 repository websites to add machine-readable data to their offerings. It also reduces barriers to entry for others, including for-profit companies like taxexemptworld.com, to increase capacity or enter the field, offering IRS nonprofit filings for free or for a fee. Regardless, machine-readable data will make it easier to compare and contrast the financial, governance, and compensation practices of nonprofits as they report them to the IRS.—Michael Wyland