Financial disclosure: Part 1

By Todd Cohen

In 1999, when GuideStar announced it would post on its website all Form 990 information returns that nonprofits file with the IRS, “all hell broke loose,” says Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO.

“We got a lot of irate calls,” he says. “Everyone said, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t do that, that’s a private document.’ And it’s not, it’s a public document.”

GuideStar, based in Williamsburg, Va., still gets a lot of calls and email messages, roughly 100 a day, Ottenhoff says, but they now focus on “what is taking so long to post our 990.”

That sea change in nonprofit attitudes about disclosing financial data reflects both growing expectations by donors, funders and the public, as well as new technologies that nonprofits can use to share that data, experts said.

“Increasingly, today’s donors want to be better informed,” says Paulette Maehara, president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in Alexandria, Va.

“What’s driven that, and what’s changed over the last five years is the technology,” she says. “Technology has allowed organizations to tell their story in a much more effective way.”
Five years ago, growing availability of Form 990 on the web was evoking fear among some fundraisers.

But today, Maehara says, “It’s no longer an issue as to whether or not you should disclose. It’s disclosed.”

Other stories in the series:

Part 2: Disclosure data online all the time
Part 3: Nonprofits increasingly are sharing data.

Part 4: Readily available data changing practice of philanthropy.
Part 5: Nonprofit face tougher rules on sharing data.

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