Friday, June 9, 2017

Unpacking The Numbers: The 990 Datathon in D.C.

From May 22nd-24th, I had the privilege and opportunity to attend the 990 Datathon, an event hosted by Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. The goal of this event was a technical one: to unpack the dataset provided by the IRS on nonprofit tax forms filed electronically so that it is available in a usable state for all. For me, though, the takeaway was a human one: a renewed faith and belief in the ability of the philanthropic sector to collaborate and build something vital for its future.

The event was led by Jesse Lecy, Assistant Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University, and David Borenstein, Charity Navigator's Lead Data Scientist.  It was the culmination of years of work by a group of dedicated data specialists called the Nonprofit Open Data Consortium, who have worked on improving access to nonprofit financial data, which is available from the IRS but, until recently, was not made available in a machine-readable format. As a program analyst who has looked at thousands of Form 990s, I can honestly say that the completion of this task will be monumentally beneficial to our ability to make meaningful conclusions about the nonprofit sector.

I had the good fortune to work side by side with Shane Ward of Guidestar. Apart from sharing a mutual interest in ridiculous movies (we took a moment to decide that we were the Scrappy Heroic Meteorologists and not the Evil Corporate Meteorologists in the movie "Twister"), we shared a passion for 990 data and a common work ethic and style. Shane optimistically volunteered us for mapping a particularly tricky section of the 990, and we happily crunched through spreadsheets for the whole of the event.

Other attendees included The Urban Institute, Do Good Institute, George Washington University, and the DC Council of CPAs. The event was a resounding success, and I believe that the sector has taken an important step in continuing to utilize data to improve and iterate upon. I also believe that events such as this one will continue to build important relationships, which will ultimately lead to a stronger social sector.

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