What is the Form 990? What is its history? (FAQ)

The IRS Forms 990 and 990-PF are the public "information returns" filed by organizations that are

exempt from federal taxation. This FAQ provides some background information and resources on

the forms. - How to Read the Form 990 & Find Out What It Means

- by Peter Swords, former Executive Director of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York. - Form 990 - This 32-page article, written by IRS staff,

provides an excellent technical overview of the origins and current IRS thinking on the Form

990.,,0471417815|desc|2994,00.html - 990 Handbook: A Line-by-

Line Approach written by Jody Blazek and published by Jossey-Bass provides 240 pages of accessible

tips and advise on completing many of the various items on the Form 990.

The IRS Instructions for the forms, despite their dense text, provide a wealth of critical (and

useful) information on the 990 for both people completing the forms and for those who wish to

interpret individual returns or data collected from many organizations. They are available on the

IRS web site ( and can be readily found by entering the form number in the search

box for Forms and Publications. Older versions of the forms and instructions are also available on

the NCCS website.

The article by IRS staff cited above provides a brief history:

Form 990 has been around for more than 50 years. The first 990 was filed for tax years ending in

1941. This comparatively simple two page form included only three yes/no questions, an income

statement, and a balance sheet, although some line items required attached schedules. For example,

individuals paid a salary of $4,000 or more were required to be listed on a schedule showing their

name, address and amount paid. Similarly, contributions exceeding $4,000 received from any one

person were required to be itemized.

By 1947, the form (including instructions) had reached four pages, although some portions applied

only to certain types of organizations such as farmers' cooperatives. The required financial

information was far more extensive than that of the first 990. Although the income statement now

contained a separate line item for compensation of officers, the requirement of a separate schedule

for the "highly compensated" seems to have vanished. The requirement for a list of large

contributors remained, but the reporting threshold for individual contributions was reduced to

$3000. By this time, a group return procedure had also been implemented. The early returns were

continuous use forms; a new form was not published each year.

For 1976, the Form 990 itself consisted of two pages plus three and one-half pages of

instructions. Schedule A consisted of four pages plus four pages of instructions. Now (as of 2000)

the form is up to six pages for the 990 itself, six pages for Schedule A, at least two pages for

Schedule B (including instructions), and a separate 42 page instruction book...

Although the increase in the length of the form appears quite dramatic, a closer look does not show

that the return requires a requisite increase in reporting..."

The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations (Sixth Edition), by Bruce Hopkins cites two other articles that

we have not been able to secure. These articles indicate that major changes to the form occurred in

the early 1980s:

- "The Revised Charitable Organization Reporting Form: IRS 990," The Philanthropy Monthy 29

(Nov. 1981)

- "Form 990 Becomes the Uniform Annual Report," The Philanthropy Monthy 29 (April 1981)

Added 06/03/2002 by tpollak, Modified 06/21/2009 by


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