IRS 990s are Information Hidden Right Under Our Eyes

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans       Forty years ago I can remember reading something somewhere way before the internet, big data, and ubiquitous computers that one of the ironies of life and work in America was the fact that we had access to way, way more information than we ever had the ability to analyze, absorb, and act on.  Even then we were an information-overload society.  The point was probably being made about freedom-of-information and open records laws that were common then, but often hid information right under our eyes, because either no one was looking or no one had the ability to process all of the data.

These days with high speed computers, we have a lot more of that information, but it seems that the same observation could be made, perhaps even more strongly, that we now, not only in the United States, but virtually everywhere, have more access to information than we have the ability to evaluate and put into action.  I think about this a lot.  For several years, I have sat on a database created from millions of records of filings by banks in the United Kingdom on their lending programs that was assembled by a volunteer in Scotland who was a graduate student in the university there in Edinburgh.  He got up to the last mile, and then fell off the radar without finishing.  We had the data, but couldn’t release it, because it wasn’t quite finished, and I’ve failed to convince anyone else to climb the ladder high enough to do the job.

ACORN, Local 100, and Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center did a long dive into all of the records of nonprofit hospitals in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas to determine whether or not they were providing charity care.  The results were horrid, but we didn’t release that either because we were missing some of the institutions.  Looking at rural electric cooperatives in the south was equally appalling in terms of governance, self-dealing, and diversity, but we did manage to get that done and out the door.  These projects were possible thanks to IRS 990s.

IRS 990s are straightforward in a crooked, roundabout way.  All 501c3 tax exempt organizations are required to file them.  Anyone can see them.  But they are another example of information right under our eyes that take time and effort to understand, so lie fallow or, frankly, hidden in plain sight.  I was surprised this week with our union when negotiating with a large, nonprofit healthcare company that they seemed to forget their financials were available to the union as they obfuscated on wages.  Working with the staff of another nonprofit earlier this year I was even more surprised that the staff of the organization had never looked at the 990s to understand more about where they worked.  Wow!

There are some sites that offer easy access to various databases of 990s.  Many are available for free from Guidestar and ProPublica.  I read of another called Citizen Audit that was interesting because it used Optical Character Research and with multiple servers was able to make 990s searchable, which is a breakthrough for all seekers.  Much of it is free, though it also has various pay levels from mid-$300 to closer to $600 for super sleuths. I took a look and searched using ACORN as the keyword.  A list of more than 100 organizations came scrolling down.  Most of those that I recognized and were current were the various Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) corporations and its various ACORN housing funds and millions in assets.  MHANY’s name derives from a deal with the City of New York to settle ACORN’s squatting campaign when Mayor Koch caved in, but in Trump-like fashion would NOT allow the result to have ACORN in its name.  I’m so proud of Ismene Spiliotis, who has been the sparkplug, wizard, and executive director of MHANY all of these years!

I also learned in my couple of minutes of search that ACORN, which was NOT a 501c3 and neither obligated nor desirous of ever filing our information, somehow under a new comptroller did in fact file a 990 in 2003 for reasons unknown and unauthorized!  They didn’t check the box saying they were a 501c3, so they knew better, but it certainly proves my point that we always learn something, hidden right under our eyes, if we are willing and able to look.

Go ye and do likewise!


Please enjoy Cat Power’s You Get. Thanks to KABF.