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Reference from Coast to Coast - Finding Tax-Exempt Financials

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on March 19, 2001

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University's Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.   

Margi Heinen is the Librarian at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan. She teaches Legal Resources at the University of Michigan's School of Information and is team teaching with her co-columnist, Jan Bissett, at Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science. She regularly does Internet training of legal staff at her firm and recently collaborated with Kathleen Gamache on an I.P.E. presentation, Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan. She is active in the Law Librarians of Metro Detroit and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries.


Frequently we are hunting for financial information about tax-exempt organizations. These requests come up in several contexts: a client is interested in donating to charities or organizations or to determine funding availability for a particular project. Your client may be in the middle of salary negotiations and need comparable executive compensation from like organizations or you may just want to check out a particular organization or university for personal reasons. Maybe you're curious about who serves on the board of a non-profit. Or you've been asked to find the form 990 filed by a specific entity or a general type of non-profit. A Form 990 will provide revenue, expenditures, officers and directors as well as executive compensation. Where might you start? Researching tax-exempt financials has been made substantially easier with the growth of the World Wide Web and will be even easier because the I.R.S rules now require that certain tax-exempt organizations make the past three years of their Form 990s available (26 CFR 301.6104(d)-0 through 301.6104(d)-3). This requirement can be met by putting accessible, exact copies of these forms on the Web.

First things first. Remember non-profit does not necessarily mean tax-exempt. Check to see if the organization you're researching has to file a 990 with the I.R.S. A 990 is an annual Return Of Organization Exempt From Income Tax. The form's instructions give the run down on who must file and more importantly organizations not required to file. The I.R.S. provides additional information in its Frequently Asked Questions About Tax-exempt Organizations and Exempt Organization Public Disclosure Requirements FAQs .  Check the Cumulative List of Organizations or its web-equivalent I.R.S. Search for Exempt Organizations to determine 501(c) status.

A Form 990 may be available directly from the tax-exempt organization at its website. Use your favorite search engine combining the organization name and 990 to locate the material. If it's not available at the organization website and you don't want to contact them directly, several web sources provide the text of 990s. The best known is GuideStar: The Donor's Guide to the Charitable Universe with information from over 700,000 U.S. non-profit organizations. Note that information varies on these 700,000 organizations, not all have 990s available. The National Center for Charitable Statistics, in cooperation with the I.R.S. and GuideStar also makes copies of the over 400,000 990s available at its website with plans to add forms for more than 200,000 organizations in the near future. The Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc. also provides financial and governance information on the most requested charities in their Philanthropic Advisory Service Reports (PAS). Foundation financial information, Form 990-PF, is available on the web via GrantSmart and the Foundation Center.

If you haven't found what you're seeking on the web, check with a business library. Some maintain collections of annual reports or Form 990s for specified charities. For example, Baker Library maintains a collection of non-profit annual reports, Form 990 and 990-PF for organizations identified in the NonProfit Times 100 and Foundation Directory Top 100. Michigan State University maintains an experimental database of information compiled from 990-PF forms of private Michigan foundations and Wayne State University maintains tax return information for Michigan foundations from 1990 – 1997 as well as being a member of the Foundation Center's Cooperating Collections program. The Foundation Center makes available copies of 990-PF filings and a core collection of materials useful to grant seekers in its cooperating collections program. Check the state list for participants.

For more ideas on researching tax-exempt or non-profit organizations, your local business library or the company research guides you regularly use may offer suggestions. The Online Journalism Review's Tips on Researching Non-Profits by Paul Grabowicz discusses GuideStar and other web sites as well as links to a contact list for state agencies regulating charities and requiring state forms similar to the I.R.S. 990. Genie Tyburski's Company Information Guide: Independent Sources of Business Information provides descriptions and links to websites about non-profit businesses. Keep your eyes open for research guides posted to the web, such as U.S.C.'s Foundation Research.