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What is Form 990 or 990-PF? How can I learn about using them?

Exempt organizations must file some version of Form 990 with the IRS each year to comply with federal regulations. Public charities file Form 990; private foundations file Form 990-PF (PF stands for Private Foundation).

Forms 990 and 990-PF can be vital tools for grantseekers when researching a foundation's past giving patterns, and will include the recipients' names, locations, and grant amounts. Some funders will even briefly describe the purpose of each grant. They can also be beneficial as nonprofit marketing tools. 


Form 990-PF has information on a private foundation's assets, financial activities, trustees and officers, and, most importantly, a complete list of grants awarded for the specified fiscal year.

Form 990 has information on a public charity's finances and activities which is accurate and open to public scrutiny. Among the details included are the charity's assets, total figures for donations and grants received, board and top staff members, and whether the charity makes grants. However, charities are not required to publicly disclose names and addresses of contributors.

Public charities with annual gross receipts of less than $50,000 do not have to file the complete Form 990. Instead, they may file the Form 990-N, also called the "e-Postcard." This short electronic form informs the IRS that the charity is still operating, and it provides very basic information, such as the organization's legal name, location, Employer Identification Number (EIN), and the principal officer’s name. You can search e-Postcard filings using the IRS's Exempt Organizations Select Check.


990s can be used for a variety of research purposes. For example, an organization's Form 990 may be the only reliable go-to resource for contact information if the nonprofit does not have a website. It can also be used to search for potential collaborative partners and funders with missions which align with your own. Plus, the 990 provides the names of the people on the board of the organization whom you might know. Please see our Diagram of Form 990 to learn more about using the 990 form in your research.

Foundation Directory Online provides access to over 140,000 organizations' 990 forms. It also simplifies research by extracting information from those 990s and putting them into an easy to use database. The database can be accessed at a funding information network site near you. 

For those individuals looking to consult 990s as their primary source, Foundation Center offers the 990 Finder. To learn more about using the Form 990-PF in your research look at The Chronicle of Philanthropy's free toolkit, Mining the 990: A Guide to Gleaning Key Data From Charities’ Tax Forms.


An organization’s 990 is looked at by a number of different outlets including the media, IRS, donors, board members, and fellow foundations to name a few. As such, they can be a useful instrument for marketing purposes. For instance, filling out the yearly 990 provides the opportunity to describe program activity in detail, expand the level of transparency, and include significant statistical information such as number of people served and volunteers. Foundation Center’s podcast, Telling Your Story: Maximizing Your Organization’s Form 990, goes more in-depth with this topic.  

See also our related Knowledge Base articles:

- Where can I find an organization’s Form 990 or 990-PF?

More articles about Forms 990 and 990-PF»

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