Nonprofit leaders don’t usually like to talk about the Form 990. Every time I bring it up and my eyes light up, their smiles turn down and a sick look comes over their face. I completely understand. It’s a tedious form with dozens of confusing schedules, half of which aren’t applicable but are included anyway. It requires a significant amount of time to not only prepare, but review and present to your board for approval. Then, we have our doubts that anyone is even looking at the 990 once it’s filed.
Guidestar and Charity Navigator pick up 990s from the IRS and post them for public consumption, so even if you think people aren’t reviewing your Form 990, it’s out there and available. Guidestar published an article about how nonprofit transparency truly matters. A study of over 6,000 nonprofits revealed that “nonprofits that earned a GuideStar Seal of Transparency averaged 53 percent more in contributions the following year compared to organizations that didn’t earn a Seal.” They concluded that donors give more to transparent organizations and that transparent organizations are stronger organizations.
This is a compelling argument for putting your best foot forward on the 990, to ensure that anyone who’s reviewing the form on Guidestar or elsewhere gets a true sense of your organization. But all too often, I see organizations not utilizing the form to its maximum potential. They leave important sections incomplete or with only a couple words, they have a typed or hard-to-read form, and they don’t include any metrics.
Here are three ways to better use your Form 990 as a marketing tool for your organization:
- Make it easy to read. There is nothing worse than a typewriter, handwritten, or bad photocopy of the 990. There are dozens of e-file programs online that create a professional, computer-generated 990 that’s easy to read and share via PDF.
- Include a well thought-out mission statement. Use this box to explain exactly what you do and how you do it. The mission statement is the very first question on the first page of the 990 and too many organizations skimp here. You have three lines, so write out your entire mission statement that says, in a sentence, who you are and what you do. A great example is charity: water. Their 990 mission statement says “charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.” Then they offer to share more in Schedule O.
- Maximize the Statement of Program Service Accomplishments. Part III of the 990 is your opportunity to share information about your three largest programs and the amount of money you spent and received for those programs. Many organizations do not include nearly enough detail here; they write “Educate Program” or “Girls Empowerment Program” and that’s it. This is a huge missed opportunity. In this section, you have over ten lines for each of the top three program areas, so it’s important to include as much relevant detail and metrics about your programs as possible. Again, charity: water has done a great job of demonstrating the need using data and statistics, as well as their accomplishments in meeting that need.
So this year when you are filling out the 990 yourself or reviewing the work of your CPA, nonprofit organizations should ensure that they are taking full advantage of opportunities the IRS is giving us to showcase the amazing work your organization is doing. It doesn’t take a massive amount of creativity or extra time, and there are just a handful of sections that you can focus on to make a huge impact on your readers. Your increased transparency is only going to increase donor confidence and trust, ultimately resulting in increased contributions, like the Guidestar study demonstrated.
Are you ready to give your donors the content they deserve? Download our Donor-Centered Content Marketing Worksheet & Checklist here.