IRS Opens Up Form 990 Data, Ushering Nonprofit Sector into the Age of Transparency

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Making meaningful improvements to how the federal government uses the internet can take years, new laws, regulations, demonstration projects, testimony and dogged persistence by public interest advocates and reformers in the pursuit of change. Then, all at once, a dam breaks and a new resource blossoms into a commons online. June 15, 2016 was such a day, when the IRS has begun publishing electronic nonprofit tax returns online in a machine-readable format on Amazon Web Services.

Sunlight has long held that nonprofit e-file data should be open. Now it is.

“This is a huge victory for the IRS,” open government advocate Carl Malamud said in an email. “The service stepped up to the plate and has squarely faced the issue of privacy breaches in public nonprofit returns and are now releasing machine-processable XML data for those returns. This is a huge release: 1.4 million e-file returns dating back to 2011 available for free and a commitment to update the data store on a monthly basis.”

Over the past decade, however, the IRS has not embraced publishing the tax returns of charities — called Form 990s — as open data with joy and enthusiasm, despite the clear value of opening the $1.6 trillion nonprofit sector to transparency and innovation. In fact, Malamud had to win a federal lawsuit to get the tax agency to do what it should have been doing anyway.

After a federal court ordered the IRS to disclose Form 990s as open data in 2015, however, the agency subsequently announced that it would begin working to release all of the data from electronically filed nonprofit tax returns available in a machine-readable format online by early 2016.

In the months since, the agency has worked diligently to ensure that the privacy issues Malamud had found in the millions of files the IRS disclosed to Public.Resource.org. As of June 2016, the public can now access Form 990 data on Amazon Web Services for free. Notably, the datasets are hosted in Amazon’s public cloud instead of IRS.gov, offloading demand to a private sector company that’s become a global leader in hosting apps, services and data.

It’s also worth noting that this release also fulfills an element of one of the commitments in the third U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government, modernizing administration of the Freedom of Information Act, to “Proactively Release Nonprofit Tax Filings.”

Tax filings for nonprofit organizations contain data that is legally required to be publicly released. Accessing the filings generally requires a request from the public, which can include a FOIA request, and results in more than 40 million pages provided in a non-machine-readable format. The Internal Revenue Service will launch a new process that will remove personally identifiable information before releasing the public information within electronically filed nonprofit tax filings. The electronically filed tax filings will be released as open, machine- readable data, allowing the public to review the finances and other information of more than 340,000 American nonprofit and charitable organizations.

In our correspondence, Malamud hailed the work of many others to bring this moment to pass, from professor Beth Noveck, the former director of the White House Open Government Initiative who co-authored “Information for Impact: Liberating Nonprofit Sector Data,” to the pro bono work of Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine on the FOIA lawsuit, to the work of Scott Klein’s team on ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Internet Archive.

“Nonprofit tax returns contain tremendous amounts of information about the activities of this important sector of our economy,” Noveck said via email. She continued:

With the raw data of nonprofit tax returns, it will become possible, for example, to see who is providing social services to whom and where and more easily spot the overlaps and gaps so that government and the social sector know where more investment is needed. It will become possible to build the tools to spot waste, fraud and abuse more easily than we can today. There’s rich and useful information, which can be visualized to help donors know more about where to give. When the sector itself has better business intelligence about its own activities, it can operate more effectively.

Many thanks to everyone who has collaborated to help bring the IRS further into the 21st century, not least the staff at the agency who we need to be trustworthy stewards of our private data. Protecting privacy when releasing open data is essential, and we commend the nation’s tax collector and regulator for its due diligence.

This is far from the first time Malamud’s determined efforts has led to a watershed in useful government data going online. Back in 1993, he used a grant from the National Science Foundation to obtain and publish Securities and Exchange Commission data online. In 1995, the SEC decided to publish the data itself. Two decades later, Malamud spent years buying, processing and publishing millions of nonprofit tax filings, converting scanned images and then making the bulk data available to the public.

“This is exactly analogous to the SEC and the EDGAR database,” Malamud said in an phone interview in 2013. “If you make the data available, you will get innovation.”

I expect that to be the case, given the track record of his predictions. For instance, journalists, auditors and congressional investigators will now be able to analyze the data to look for trends and patterns, finding and flagging issues. It’s also going to empower officials and watchdogs to track and reveal influence in the nonprofit world.

“This is useful information to track nonprofits,” Malamud said. “A state attorney general could just search for all executives that received loans from their employer.

More broadly, opening Form 990 data will not only improve how services like Guidestar and Charity Navigator work, but also provide the public with more equitable access and insight insight into how well their donations are being spent.

“My hope is that this will enable us to grow the nonprofit sector by enabling people to target their donations, to help the sector know better whom to serve and how, and, ultimately, to help the people who are the recipients of the good works of those in nonprofit organizations,” said Noveck.


CC-BY-SAThis work by Sunlight Foundation, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Well Past Time to Take Women Out From Under the Gun and Disarm Domestic Abusers

How Gun Violence Affects Women and Four Policy Solutions to Better Protect Them
Weak gun laws at the federal and state levels leave far too many women facing a fatal end to domestic abuse.

— by Arkadi Gerney and Chelsea Parsons  from the Center for American Progress

Violence against women looks very different than violence against men. Whether in the context of sexual assault on college campuses or in the military, violence by an intimate partner, or other types of violent victimization, women’s experiences of violence in this country are unique from those of men. One key difference in the violence committed against women in the United States is who commits it: Women are much more likely to be victimized by people they know, while men are more likely to be victims of violent crime at the hands of strangers. Between 2003 and 2012, 65 percent of female violent crime victims were targeted by someone they knew; only 34 percent of male violent crime victims knew their attackers. Intimate partners make up the majority of known assailants: During the same time period, 34 percent of all women murdered were killed by a male intimate partner, compared to the only 2.5 percent of male murder victims killed by a female intimate partner.

DomesticGunViolenceA staggering portion of violence against women is fatal, and a key driver of these homicides is access to guns. From 2001 through 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun—more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. Guns are used in fatal intimate partner violence more than any other weapon: Of all the women killed by intimate partners during this period, 55 percent were killed with guns. Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than are women in other high income countries.

Limiting abusers and stalkers’ access to firearms is therefore critical to reduce the number of women murdered in this country every year. This idea is not new: Congress first acted 20 years ago to strengthen our gun laws to prevent some domestic abusers from buying guns. But we are still a long way from having a comprehensive system of laws in place at both the federal and state levels that protect women—and children and men—from fatal violence in the context of intimate and domestic relationships. This report provides an overview of the data regarding the intersection of intimate partner violence and gun violence, describing four policies that states and the federal government should enact to reduce dangerous abusers’ access to guns and prevent murders of women:

  • Bar all convicted abusers, stalkers, and people subject to related restraining orders from possessing guns.
  • Provide all records of prohibited abusers to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
  • Require a background check for all gun sales.
  • Ensure that abusers surrender any firearms they own once they become prohibited.

Some states have already adopted some of these policies, and in the past 12 months, there has been a growing movement across the country to enact laws closing some gaps related to domestic abusers’ gun access in several states, including Wisconsin, Washington, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.

This report collected and analyzed data from a variety of sources, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI; the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC; the Office of Violence Against Women; state criminal justice agencies; state domestic violence fatality review boards; and academic research. These data provide a snapshot of women’s experiences of violence in this country and show the glaring gaps in state and federal laws that leave victims of domestic violence and stalking vulnerable to gun violence. Many of these data have not been made public prior to the publication of this report and were collected through Freedom of Information Act requests. Among our findings:

  • In 15 states, more than 40 percent of all homicides of women in each state involved intimate partner violence. In 36 states, more than 50 percent of intimate partner-related homicides of women in each state involved a gun.
  • A review of conviction records in 20 states showed that there are at least 11,986 individuals across the country who have been convicted of misdemeanor-level stalking but are still permitted to possess guns under federal law. It is likely that there are tens of thousands of additional convicted stalkers who are able to buy guns.
  • While submission of records regarding convicted misdemeanant domestic abusers to the FBI’s NICS Index has increased 132 percent over the past five-and-a-half years, only three states appear to be submitting reasonably complete records—Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. Records from these three states account for 79 percent of the total records submitted to the FBI.

Every day in the United States, five women are murdered with guns. Many of these fatal shootings occur in the context of a domestic or intimate partner relationship. However, women are not the only victims. Shooters have often made children, police officers, and their broader communities additional targets of what begins as an intimate partner shooting. In fact, one study found that more than half of the mass shootings in recent years have started with or involved the shooting of an intimate partner or a family member. Enacting a comprehensive set of laws and enforcement strategies to disarm domestic abusers and stalkers will reduce the number of women who are murdered by abusers with guns—and it will make all Americans safer.

Arkadi Gerney is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Chelsea Parsons is Director of Crime and Firearms Policy at the Center.

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This material [the article above] was created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It was created for the Progress Report, the daily e-mail publication of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Click here to subscribe.