IRS 990-PF Forms

In lieu of paying taxes to the federal government, charitable foundations file an annual Form 990-PF with the Internal Revenue Service. These forms become public record and are an invaluable source of information for grantseekers. Two kinds of useful information can be found on them:

  • The recipient of every grant made during the 12-month reporting period (calendar or fiscal year) is shown – the beneficiary and the amount. This helps to clarify more general statements found on their websites and annual reports. Here are a few examples:

    Foundation A’s literature says it makes grants to organizations that provide services to victims of catastrophic diseases. This could be cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a number of other illnesses. But the list of recipients shows that 95% of the money went to the Cerebral Palsy Association of Southern California, the Greater Atlanta Cerebral Palsy Society, etc. Now you know that unless your organization focuses on cerebral palsy, Foundation A is not a promising target.

    Foundation B claims to make most of its grants in the Northeast United States. But its recipient list shows that all 27 grantees were in Massachusetts. If your agency is in New Jersey, which is also in the northeast, don’t bother applying.

    Foundation C’s mission, according to materials it publishes, is to provide funding for the improvement of K-12 education. Its 990-PF shows that this is true – but with an unexpected twist: its beneficiaries are all Christian schools. If your school is Christian, go for it, but if it’s a public school, why bother?

     
  • The 990-PF also lists every officer and Board member of the foundation. Why does this matter? Because relationships play such an important role in foundation funding (less so in government funding). Cynics might claim that who you know is everything. That’s not true, but all else being equal. A quality proposal submitted through a contact may stand a better chance than one submitted cold.  Smart grantseekers circulate a list of officers and Board members of targeted foundations within their organizations, to see if by chance someone knows one of them. If so, that person makes the introduction. Not having a contact shouldn’t stop you from applying, but having one can enhance your chances.

How can 990-PF’s be accessed? The best way is online through the The Foundation Center website, fdncenter.org. Generally, forms are kept for 10 years. The fee-based information can be obtained without charge at the Foundation Center’s offices in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco, or at branches it has established throughout the country, including the Foundation Information Network through the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark.

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