When Taxes and Marketing Collide: Non-Profit Tax Form 990

Hearing marketing advice from your accountant may be surprising and unexpected, but if you are working on your IRS Tax Form 990—the return filed by non-profit organizations—it’s exactly what you should hear. At Cray Kaiser, we refer to Tax Form 990 as your “resume for big donors.”

Yes, your accountant checks over every detail to be sure that the IRS—the number one audience for Form 990—continues to consider the organization tax-exempt. But did you know that Form 990 is also available to and frequently read by the general public?

The audience goes far beyond the IRS, and the information contained on the form answers important questions for a wide variety of interested readers, including:

  • Donors
  • Researchers
  • Foundation program officers
  • Corporate giving officers
  • Media
  • Researchers
  • Legislators
  • Job applicants

Imagine a potential donor who is planning to make a large donation and is choosing among three organizations, one of which is yours. The donor pulls up the three 990 forms to learn more. She reviews mission statements, achievements and financials. She considers how much money went to the mission versus how much was spent on advertising and overhead. She examines Board of Trustees and senior management lists, possibly researching more about those involved with the organization.

How does your Form 990 compare? Will she choose your organization over one with a Form 990 that effectively communicates the mission of the organization and persuades readers to support the cause?

Using Form 990 as a marketing tool can be achieved with a few simple steps:

  • If you have writers, marketers or public relations resources available to you, use them.
  • When answering questions, attempt to grasp and hold on to the reader’s attention by writing in an interesting but concise manner. Consider your target audience. How can you answer the questions in a way that would most appeal to them?
  • Use every opportunity to promote the organization. Rather than directing a reader to another response that seems to answer a similar question, answer every question to showcase your organization’s strengths.
  • Tap into your company’s available assets. Refer to language and content in your grant proposals, annual report, marketing materials, social media, blogs, mission statements and any marketing materials.
  • As you fill out this annual return, stay motivated and attentive. Review each and every question each year. Emphasize new accomplishments and new programming. Many organizations leave the narratives pro forma from prior years. This allows their descriptions and activities to look and sound dated.  Donors, like all consumers, want to partake in or contribute to fresh ideas and new causes.  Consider any changes in the organization, any new materials, language or content that could improve the form’s ability to persuade donors and other readers.

It’s not often that your tax form serves as a marketing tool, but in this case, that’s exactly what it is. Use this opportunity to persuade that donor with money to bestow that your cause it the most deserving one. And while you may not turn to your accountant for advice on your new logo or advertising campaign, the advice to use your Form 990 as a marketing tool can make the difference between getting that big donation or having it pass you by.

If you have questions about Tax Form 990, please contact Cray Kaiser today. We’re here to help!