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Knowledge Base

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

Information on this form includes:

  • A private foundation's assets
  • Financial activities
  • Trustees and officers
  • Most importantly, a complete list of grants awarded for the specified fiscal year

Form 990

This form has information on a public charity's finances and activities which is accurate and open to public scrutiny. Among the details:

  • Charity assets
  • Total figures for donations and grants received
  • Board and top staff members
  • Whether the charity makes grants

However, public charities are not required to publicly disclose names and addresses of contributors. You can read more about how to research individual donors here.

Form 990-N

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 tells the IRS that the charity is still operating. It's very basic information includes:

  • The organization's legal name
  • Location
  • Employer Identification Number (EIN)
  • 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:

  • Contact information. The 990 might be the only reliable go-to resource for contact information if the nonprofit does not have a website--and 90% of them don't.
  • Partners and funders. Search for collaborative partners and funders whose missions align with your own.
  • Who's who. The 990 provides the names of organizations' board members. You, your board or staff might know them.

Please see our Diagram of Form 990 to learn more about using the Form 990 in your research.

Foundation Center's database, Foundation Directory Online, makes research easy by extracting information from 990s and putting it into a searchable format. Foundation Directory Online is available by subscription or can be accessed for free at a funding information network site near you. The database also provides access to more than 140,000 organizations' 990 forms. 

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.


Many people look at 990s, including the media, IRS, donors, board members, and other nonprofits. That means 990s can be a useful opportunity to tell your organization's story. Among the marketing possibilities:

  • Describing a program activity in detail
  • Expanding your organization's level of transparency
  • Highlighting statistics, like the number of people served or volunteers

Foundation Center’s podcast, Telling Your Story: Maximizing Your Organization’s Form 990, explores 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»

Selected resources below may also help.

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