Consider the IRS Form 990. The executive director tears his hair out over it. The accountant prepares it. The board looks at it and nods. Let’s just get it done.

But when the Internal Revenue Service redesigned the Form 990 in 2008, it created an opportunity that too few nonprofits take advantage of.

High net-worth donors check your financials before making a major gift. The federal government requires the 990 to be available upon request. You can’t turnaround online without a governance guru writing about transparency.

So what are we waiting for? If the 990 is so important, why aren’t we figuring out ways to use it to our own advantage? Just because it’s a government form, created for the government’s purpose, doesn’t mean we can’t take it to its highest potential.

Talking to foundation executives, I heard one say that she “checks the 990 to see the ratio of board members relative to the size of the budget.” The Community Reinvestment Officer for a national bank said she checks for a “tangible lack of board involvement.”

Why not use the 990 to lay the groundwork for a more substantive conversation with donors and foundations?

Imagine the possibilities! Where the 990 asks for your purpose, make it sing! Footnote the heck out of it. You can add as many expansions as you want, so why not use it. And since you’re putting it on the website so everyone can easily find it (you are putting it on the website, aren’t you?), take a little extra space and answer funders’ questions before they ask them.

One terrific example of taking the Form 990 to new heights is at the Creating the Future website. Creating the future is a living laboratory for developing and demonstrating tools for individuals and communities, so people are living well, individually and collectively. It’s a concept that begs to be explored, but most funders won’t take the time to ask. So the organization has its Form 990 on its website, as well as an annotated Form 990, that gives detailed explanations of why they answered each part the way they did.

You can just see someone looking at their website, seeing “Form 990” and “Form 990 annotations,” and clicking the second one out of curiosity. Creating the Future has just engaged a supporter.

Imagine the possibilities. What will make supporters feel good about giving to your organization? Can the Form 990 help?

To talk more about using what you have to make a difference, governance transparency, or to see how The Detwiler Group might partner with you to plan the future, contact me at or