Beyond the IRS: Communicating Your Foundation’s 990-PF

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

By Gail Fuller, Director of Communications, Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Long ago, foundations were in what I call “The Lone Ranger” mode: they hid behind masks, addressed societal needs, and for the most part never revealed who they were or told their stories or that of their grantees. By the 1980s, that began to change. The late Frank Karel, who created what is today considered foundation communications, concluded that a sound communications strategy is guided by the relentless pursuit of answers to three deceptively simple questions: 1) What do you want to accomplish?, 2) Who has to think or act differently for that to happen?, and 3) What would prompt them to do it?

Those are the same questions that also drive good grantmaking. And with that simple way of thinking, foundations began to be strategic about their communications and tell their stories, both externally with annual reports (and eventually websites), and with internal communications to trustees and staff.

Today, we’ve moved into the “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” phase—foundations are eager to show they promote transparency and accountability. And this is evident with the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets, a website focused on transparency in philanthropy.

Foundation communications continue to move beyond the traditional concept of communications as publications and press releases or measuring success by “how much we say or how many clicks our websites receive, or how many publications are downloaded.” In order for foundations to tell their stories, it is important that communications are integrated into the grantmaking process. In the age of transparency and accountability, the need for effective strategic communications is critical to how we work, how we are perceived, and our philanthropic impact.

The 990-PF is one piece of the puzzle that helps to tell a foundation’s story. It’s part of our “public” face. The 990-PF form is an annual information return filed by exempt private foundations. But it’s not simply about filing tax forms, and having people access them through GuideStar. Here are a few tips for communicating with the 990-PF:

A. Make it Part of Your Plan: No longer just a report to the IRS, the 990-PF is now the most commonly used data source about private foundations. How and what you disseminate from your 990-PF should be part of your organization’s overall communications plan for communicating with key audiences, including policymakers, media, grantees, grantseekers, trustees, and staff.

B. Join Communications in the 990-PF Process: Make sure your communications staff is part of the team that completes the 990-PF. At the foundation where I work, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Finance includes Communications in the process. Our Communications department completes Part XV, which explains the grantmaking process and guidelines and our core programs, while our grants management team handles the grants paid section of Part XV. But we can and should go beyond that—making sure the 990-PF is accurate and the story is concisely told.

C. Make It Easily Accessible: Today many foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, are placing their 990-PFs on their website. The Fund’s 990-PF is included in the Governance section, along with the financial statements, committee charters, bylaws, investment guidelines, and much more.

D. Repurpose Key Information from the 990-PF: Not everyone wants to comb through your 990-PF, so it’s important to tell its story in various pieces. We have created a Statistical Review of RBF Operations, which examines our grantmaking, investments, spending, and operations through simple charts with key bullet points. While we don’t do a traditional annual report, we do cross-reference our financial information on the online version, which allows people to access our financial statements, 990-PFs, and other key information. (We also discovered that “Statistical Review of RBF Operations” isn’t the most engaging name, so we’ll be hopefully renaming it next year.)

So next year, when it’s time to file your 990-PF, you may want to consider the team approach, and turn it into a collaborative process that involves finance, grants management, and, yes, communications.

Gail Fuller is Director of Communications for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. She served as moderator and presenter at the Philanthropy New York program “Who is Looking at Your 990-PF?” with Candice Meth, Senior Manager of Not-for-Profit Services at EisnerAmper LLP, and Art Taylor, CEO of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance.


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