The Vanishing 990 Award List
The Vanishing 990 Award List

Grant professionals have used federal Internal Revenue Service(IRS) Form 990s as a central resource for cutting a long list of maybe-maybe-not foundations down to a short list of solid prospects. Part XV, Line 3 of that form requires foundations to list the amounts, recipients, and purposes of grants made in the fiscal year. 

The Form 990 is public information and easily accessed through numerous sources including the IRS and GuideStar by Candid. “Studying a few years of tax returns gives you a realistic perspective of whether your organization and project might fit a funder’s interests,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “The areas of interest listed by foundations are much too general to provide meaningful guidance. You need the nitty-gritty detail.” 

Because foundations’ lists of grants are often too extensive to include within the Form 990, that information is typically included as an attachment. Grant professionals are increasingly finding that the grant awards attachment is not included with the online Form 990 available for public view. “The IRS needs to require that foundations list awards directly on the tax form, or needs to make sure the attachment is, in fact, attached to the document made available to the public,” said Floersch. “Without that information the public disclosure requirement is only partially met.”

When a grant award attachment is not included with recent Form 990s, it is difficult to assess whether pursuing a grant is worthwhile or will be a waste of time for both you and the funder. Relying on old information is risky. It is routine for funders to change priorities or to rethink award levels within their portfolio of interests. While you have the right to ask a funder for a copy of the full Form 990, that’s probably not the best foot forward in building a relationship. If you find yourself struggling with a vanished award list, put on your detective hat and get out the biggest magnifying glass you can find. Here are four things to find:

  • Check the funder’s website (if there is one). Some foundations list all awards, amounts, and grantees there.
  • Call or email funders (if you can find contact information) and inquire about your proposed project. Ask if it is a good fit with the funder’s interests.
  • Do an online search of awards by the foundation. Nonprofits often publicize awards and media often make announcements. “Online searches using varied key words and approaches is one of the best options,” said Floersch.
  • If you learn of organizations that received awards from the foundation, contact them. 

And when you have a little time, reach out to your congressional delegation and educate them about the problem of the vanishing grant award attachments. Nonprofits are essential to the health and well-being of our country. The last thing they need is another obstacle to make their work more difficult. © Copyright 2022, Barbara Floersch