July 31, 2021

Special Collections: Valuable Trove Of Tax Records at IUPUI University Library Offers Unique Insights into Foundations

From Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis:

University Library at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has a valuable trove of documents offering unique insights into the activities of private charitable foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

The library’s Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives has more than 800,000 individual tax records that were filed by thousands of foundations with the Internal Revenue Service between 1971 and 1997.

Those records were sent to the IUPUI archives by the Foundation Center, which collects information about private foundations on behalf of the public.

The library is seeking funding to digitize the documents and upload them to an e-archive site, making them easily accessible at no charge. It’s estimated that it would cost about $1 million and take two years to accomplish that goal.

Currently, patrons can request tax records for a specific foundation but must pay a fee of 25 cents per page to cover the cost of scanning, digitizing and redacting Social Security numbers on the forms. Depending on the size of the foundation, that fee can run into hundreds of dollars.

The archives staff plans to place online the foundation tax records it has digitized as a result of patron requests, including documents filed by the Open Society Institute, the Donald J. Trump Foundation and the Ray Kroc Foundation, but those represent only a small fraction of the archives’ Historical Foundation Collection.

In the early 1970s, about 27,000 foundations filed annual tax forms with the IRS, a number that more than doubled to about 55,000 in the 1990s due to the growth in the number of private foundations in the United States.

“The collection is one of the few ways to learn about the work that the foundations did between 1971 and 1997,” said Angela White, philanthropic studies archivist.

“The tax records are Forms 990-PF, the informational form that all private foundations are required to file with the IRS each year,” White said. “These records contain important information about assets and liabilities, board members, compensation for top-level employees, and, most importantly, the list of grants the foundations made and to whom and for how much.”

The data on the tax records is stored on aperture cards. The punch-card portion of the aperture card records basic information about the foundation, and a microfilm inset on each card contains up to 15 pages of the tax form. Depending on the size of the foundation and the completeness of the information it provided, an annual tax filing form might fill only one card or hundreds.

Since 1997, foundation tax records have been placed online. Prior to 1971 and a change in the tax law, there were minimal tax-reporting requirements for foundations. Generally, pre-1971 tax forms provide little or no information about grants made by the foundations.

“The archives’ foundation tax records are often the primary publicly available source for information about foundations, especially if a foundation does not publish an annual report, and are an important resource for the history of foundations and the development of the nonprofit sector,” White said.

There are lots of historical questions about the activities of foundations, and the archives’ collection can help answer those questions, said White.

“It’s interesting to see how politics are reflected in the grants made by the foundations,” she said. “Some foundations took a pretty generic approach to supporting charities. Sometimes you see a really big shift when the initial founder of the foundation dies or retires, and the next generation takes over.”

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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