Transparency and the Form 990

The IRS Form 990, the nonprofit organization annual information return, was redesigned in 2008. The IRS stated increased transparency as a goal of the new IRS Form 990. In addition to other questions that suggest means to accomplish greater transparency.

Governance Disclosures on the Form 990

The IRS Form 990’s Part VI on governance has been described as the “crown jewel” of the new Form 990. It asks about the responding organization’s board size, structure, management and policies.

In a February 2008 IRS publication, the service wrote, “the Internal Revenue Service believes that a well-governed charity is more likely to obey the tax laws, safeguard charitable assets, and serve charitable interests than one with poor or lax governance.” As a result, Part VI is all about governance. It requests information about policies not required by the Internal Revenue Code, but related to governance, management and disclosure.

  • Section A seeks specific information about the filing organization’s governing body, its independence and interactions.
  • Section B asks whether an organization has adopted and complies with certain policies, including conflict of interest, whistleblower, and document and retention policies. While there is no legal obligation that requires such policies and as a result should not have a legal consequence for the lack of such a policy, IRS requested information suggests “behavior modification.”
  • Section C inquires about how an organization makes governance and other organizational information available to the public.

In addition to other questions that suggest means to accomplish greater transparency, Part VI, Section C requires organizations to provide a description of how it makes certain information accessible to the public.

Question 18 Section 6104 requires an organization to make its Forms 1023 (or 1024 if applicable), 990, and 990-T (501(c)(3) only) available for public inspection. Indicate how you make these available. Check all that apply.
___ Own website ___ Another’s website ___Upon request

Question 19 asks the organization to describe in Schedule O whether (and if so, how), the organization makes its governing documents, conflict of interest policy and financial statements available to the public.
 

The 990 Instructions for question 18 indicate that the filer should explain on Schedule O if it does not make publicly available upon request certain forms as required by law. Organizations that apply for federal income tax exemption via the Form 1023 or 1024, if the tax exemption was granted after, must make that form publicly available. Also, an organization’s Form 990 must be available “for a period of three years from the date it is required to be filed or, if later, is actually filed.” The Instructions further clarifies that donor information is not required to be public information.

Unlike question 18, there is no federal tax law requirement to make other documents publicly available. However in the spirit of transparency, two questions are really asked in 19. First, to which documents does the organization give public access. Second, how or through what means is access provided. The 990 Instructions list several examples of how organizations make foundational documents available to the public including:

  • Posting on the organization's website
  • Posting on another website (guidestar.org or similar website)
  • Providing copies upon request
  • Inspection at an office of the organization

Many organizations provide access to documents in several different ways. For example, articles of incorporation and bylaws may be found on an organization’s own website, its 990 on GuideStar, and conflict of interest policy and financial statement upon request.
 

 
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