Make Form 990s searchable to check out nonprofits

by December 23, 2010
Helen DeVos Children's Hospital by Flickr user stevendepolo

KUOW reporter John Ryan looked into charitable hospitals in the Seattle area by converting PDFs of their tax Form 990s into a searchable format. This photo of the new Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., was taken by Flickr user stevendepolo.

John Ryan of public radio station KUOW in Seattle has been looking at the pay and perks offered by charitable hospitals in his area. His latest segment pits the salaries and benefits of the executives against their employees, noting one part-time worker relies on the charity care the hospital offers.

Today’s Tip: Get searchable Form 990s, John says.

The new 990s, which nonprofits must file with the IRS, require more transparency about pay and benefits, which can provide some great stories about nonprofits, John says. The forms are available through GuideStar, however, you may not be able to search scanned images, he says.

To solve the problem, he suggests getting electronic copies directly from the nonprofits. If they’re not available, you can get a free, online OCR (optical character recognition) converter at, he says.

“It converted each scanned PDF to a searchable PDF,” John says. “I made sure to check any numbers I used against the original documents, since OCR can misread characters, especially in a poorly scanned document.”

John Ryan, reporter, KUOW, Seattle

John Ryan

Many nonprofits have experienced lower contributions because of the economic downturn. Checking how that’s affected expenditures, including salaries, could make for a good story. The new forms also require information about board members’ independence.

Investigative Reporters and Editors has a terrific tipsheet on the new 990 by Lewis Kamb of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., but you must be a member to access it.

To learn more, attend a free Reynolds Center workshop on Investigating Private Companies and Nonprofits on Feb. 23 in Raleigh, N.C., or June 8 in Orlando, Fla.