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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

The Surprisingly Helpful Way to Learn About a Nonprofit Before Your Interview

It’s tax season, and that means that you’re likely digging through receipts and stressing over your deductions right now. But while your personal tax returns may seem like a headache, a nonprofit’s tax return can be a wealth of valuable information.

As tax-exempt organizations, all nonprofits’ tax returns are public information. Some organizations make it super easy and post their recent tax returns on their websites, but if they don’t, you can also find them on charity databases like GuideStar. It takes a while for nonprofits to produce these documents, so they never include the most up-to-date information, but they do establish a history and a baseline of operations.

But why would you want to slog through an organization’s tax return? I, for one, always check out the tax return of an organization before I go into a first interview, so I’m prepared to talk about governance, finance, and funding, and so I can name-drop any donors or board members I know. The information on these documents has also helped me with salary negotiations.

So if you’re a job seeker, journalist, or grant-seeker, keep your eyes peeled for these key pieces of information.

Lines 8-12: Actual Contributions

These lines summarize the types of money that the organization receives (e.g., donations, direct revenue, and investment). This can give you a sense of how big the nonprofit’s budget is and how diverse its revenue streams are.

Expect endowed foundations to be heavy on investments, most traditional nonprofits to rely mostly on grants and contributions, and social enterprises to be split between grants and revenue. If the organization doesn’t fit those general guidelines, it deserves a closer look.

Line 15: Salaries

This is a summary line of all salaries paid to staff. It may not be particularly helpful for a large organization with a wide range of staff levels, but if it has a small staff and you divide this total by the number of full-time staff and don’t get a living wage, you might want to be cautious about applying for a position there.

Lines 20-22: Assets and Liabilities

This is basically a mini financial statement. A quick glance at this can give you a sense of the financial health of the organization. Are its liabilities greater than its assets? That’s not good. Check out Part X for the organization’s balance statement to figure out why that might be.

The balance statement details the organization’s assets (e.g., the money it raised this year, investments it made, or property it owns) and its liabilities (i.e., the money it paid out this year, as well as any debts). You can find more information on how to read a balance sheet here

Part VII: Board Members

You’ll usually find all board members listed on an organization’s website, but compare that list to this one in the tax return. This will tell you if there’s a lot of turnover, which could be a sign of leadership problems.

It will also list salaries for any officers (or, in small organizations, only the executive director). This is great information to have if you’re interviewing for a top leadership position, but can even be a good reality check if you are going in for a lower position. After all, you’re not going to making $60,000 a year if the executive director isn’t making more than $55,000.

Schedule B: Contributors

To protect donor privacy, an organization can legally hold this information back from the general public (although it is reported to the IRS). And, only contributions over a certain level have to be reported, so you won’t find a complete list here.

However, if the nonprofit does release it, it can be really helpful. If you’re looking at a competitor’s tax return, for example, you now have a list of its major donors. Or, if you’re looking for a fundraising job, you can find out some of the major players you’ll be working with.

Schedule I: Grants Made

If the organization in question donates money, it must declare to whom and how much. If you’re researching a foundation and it doesn’t list past grants on its website, a recent tax return should be your next stop. It will help you figure out what kinds of programs get funded and how much they get.

A word of warning: If you’re looking at a large foundation and it has a nifty database of grants on its website, use that instead of going to a tax return. (I once tried to download a major foundation’s tax return and it broke my computer!)

Schedule J, Part II: Compensation Information

Only very large organizations need to complete this schedule, so it may not be applicable to every nonprofit you review. This form lists the compensation for all top-level officers—usually those making more than $200,000 a year. You may not be anywhere near that kind of salary, but it will give you a sense of how far up you can go in the company.

Deep Throat told Bernstein to “follow the money,” and no truer words were ever said. Money tells a story that can be edited out of other narratives. By going to an organization’s tax return, you get the raw story of how they truly operate—which can help you make informed decisions about your nonprofit career.

Photo of man at computer courtesy of Shutterstock.