Unlocking IRS Form 990-PF data through hosted search

Chad Kruse
Dec 6, 2017 · 5 min read

“Very cool things are starting to happen with IRS’s open 990 data”

Jed Sundwall, #OpenData lead at Amazon Web Services (AWS) tweeted that statement last month and I couldn’t agree more. 🙏 🚀

For the unfamiliar, Jed was referring to the electronic IRS Form 990 dataset released last year. The dataset, graciously hosted by AWS, is a machine-readable representation of Form 990 filings submitted electronically by U.S. nonprofits. It’s a treasure trove of open data useful for nonprofit fundraisers, philanthropy insiders, researchers, and academics among many others.

While you do need to speak a certain dialect of geek to wrangle the data in its raw form, amazing folks from the likes of Aspen Institute, Charity Navigator and many others are working hard to make this data more accessible to a wider audience of developers and researchers.

With Grantmakers.io, my mission is to make a subset of this dataset, the Form 990-PF filed by foundations, available to anyone with a web browser, particularly nonprofits seeking information on potential funders.

Today, I’m excited to announce two major updates to Grantmakers:

  1. Searchable grants databases for tens of thousands of individual foundations
  2. A central search function to access data on millions of historical grants

The new features are powered by our friends at Algolia, experts in all things search. As is my M.O. at Grantmakers, and thanks to the generosity of Algolia, these features are fully open source, cost nothing, and accessible to anyone. No login required.


Let’s take a look at the new search features:

Searchable grants databases

At the heart of Grantmakers are freely accessible foundation profiles. Here’s what a typical profile looked like in the early days:

Early Grantmakers.io Profile

The one-page profiles are a summary snapshot of each U.S. foundation that files electronically. Many of the 74,339 profiles include hundreds or even thousands of grants made by the foundation in its latest fiscal year. The Bank of America Foundation, for example, lists over 37,000 individual grants in their most recent Form 990-PF.

Thanks to the partnership with Algolia, any foundation profile containing more than a handful of listed grants now contains a searchable grants database directly in the profile.

If you’re familiar with the online grants databases of large foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, that functionality has been brought to ten of thousands of additional foundations.

In fact, the number of online, searchable grants databases for individual U.S. foundations just went from 65 to 29,570!

Nonprofit fundraisers have a new resource to understand foundation giving priorities through actual grants made. And thanks to the ability to search across tax years, they can also quickly identify emerging trends in a foundation’s giving strategies.

Here’s what a typical profile looks like now:

Grantmakers.io searchable grants databases

Global grants search

Along with the individual grants databases, the partnership with Algolia allowed the creation of a central search function covering all historical grants contained in the IRS Form 990-PF dataset. All 3.6 million of them.

Nonprofit professionals gain a freely available resource for discovering like-minded funders amongst the 74,000 foundations that file electronically.

Grantmakers.io Global Grants Search

Why Instant Search matters

Notice how, in the image above, results change as the user types. You’re probably familiar with the feature, called Instant Search, thanks to its use by Google and many others. Instant Search is particularly useful when searching across foundation tax forms for one simple reason: philanthropy isn’t black and white. The same topic can go by many different terms, e.g. one foundation’s “gender equality” is another’s “gender parity”.

With Instant Search, a nonprofit fundraiser can quickly try multiple phrases to get straight to the most relevant results. Take another look at the image above and note the number of variances on the example theme, gender equality. In the image example, the user covers eight variations of gender equality in mere seconds. Compare that to the more common search experience of clicking a search button and waiting for the page to reload.

In partnership with Algolia

If you’ve recently visited Idealist.org, you’ve actually used Algolia’s search technology already. Algolia is a technology company that does one thing really well: hosted search.

Hosted search means their technology does all the heavy “search” lifting. It means they handle updating and maintaining a world-wide network of servers. Most important to me, as a solo developer, it means it’s THEIR engineers that develop and adjust the complex algorithms that allow for relevant search results at incredible speeds.

Algolia was an early supporter of Grantmakers and they continue to support a variety of interesting open source and nonprofit projects through their Algolia for Open Source initiative. For more information on getting started with Algolia, check out one of their many developer libraries and plugins.

Try it out

If you’re a practitioner in the nonprofit sector, I invite you to check out the new Grantmakers features:

  1. Visit the Bank of America Charitable Foundation’s profile for a demonstration of the profile grants search
  2. Search through all 3.6m grants via Global Grants Search

The charitable world deserves world-class search

I hope you find the new search features at Grantmakers.io useful no matter what your role in the charitable sector is. If you have ideas on how the features can be improved, feel free to share your ideas on our open source repository or reach out via email.

Most importantly, I’d like to personally thank the entire team at Algolia for allowing us to build a truly world-class search utility for nonprofits. 👊

Grantmakers.io

PS — If you’re a developer or simply interested in the geeky bits, feel free to head over to Part II of this post.

Chad Kruse

Written by

Founder of SmarterGiving.org, Creator of Grantmakers.io. Passionate about using technology to make the world a better place.

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