The Form 990 Know-How: Your Stress-Free Filing Guide

It’s the most dreaded time of year by many. Long, mind-numbing forms. Checking, double checking and triple checking. Searching and searching until you find the right documents. That’s right, it’s tax time. “But I’m a tax-free organization,” you say with pride. Ah, and if only you were exempt from the dreaded forms.

But cheer up, fellow form-haters. Form 990 doesn’t have to be all bad. Follow this step-by-step process to have your Form 990 done in no time.

Do I Have To?

You did it when you were a kid, and if you have children you’ve probably heard them say it. Your mom tells you to do something so absurd you think it must be some sort of joke. And then, you ask, with a look of disgust on your face…“Do I have to?”

The hard truth is, every organization that has 501(c)(3) status is required to file a Form 990, regardless of income, with a few exceptions. If you are unsure if you should file a Form 990, the Internal Service Revenue (IRS) offers a list of qualifications to see if you should file.

Which Do I File?

The names seem confusing, but it’s actually simple to figure out which form you need to file. Find which requirements you meet to see which version of Form 990 you should fill out.

Form 990 EZ

If your gross receipts for the fiscal year were less than $200,000, and your total assets were less than $500,000, then this is the form for you.

Form 990

If your gross receipts were greater than or equal to $200,000, and your total assets were greater than or equal to $500,000, then choose this form.

Form 990-N

If your gross receipts were less than or equal to $50,000 then this form is yours. Different from most forms, this one is filed as an e-postcard.

Before the Filing

Before you get to the form, make sure you have important information readily available, such as your Employer Identification Number (EIN), your tax period and your Group Exemption Number (GEN). You’ll also need to fill out any required schedules of your organization. Two of the major schedules are:

Schedule A

Every 501(c)(3) organization needs to file this schedule. It tells more about what type of organization you are, such as a government, education or community safety organization. You’ll also list your public support on this form such as where your grants and gifts come from.

Schedule B

This schedule is based off of your contributors. The general rule is that if your nonprofit received more than $5,000 from any one contributor, you’re required to fill out this schedule.

These schedules are the most popular, but there are other schedules that might fit your nonprofit’s niche. The IRS has a list of 990 schedules and explanations to see if you should fill them out.

Filling It Out

Now that you’ve come this far, it’s time to actually fill out the form. There are some simple pieces of information that you’ll need to have. For example, make sure you have a list of your income and where you received that income. The form will ask you to break down your expenses between program, management and fundraising expenses. If you’ve been keeping track all year, you won’t break a sweat filling out your form.

Remember that Form 990 is more detailed than a regular tax form, because the purpose is different. Potential donors can look at this form and make decisions on whether to donate or not. That means when the form asks you for a list of programs and descriptions of how much money you spend on them, you should be thorough and honest. The form will ask you to identify yourself as a public or private organization. And finally, you will need to list all of your board members and how much the top staff member gets paid. Remember that there are more items on the list, but these are the most important items you’ll need to know.

Need More Help?

If you are unsure about any aspect of your Form 990, there are a multitude of resources available to help. Many accountants offer reasonably priced services for preparing the nonprofit forms—so don’t hesitate to call an accountant to ask questions if you are doubting any section of your Form 990. Also, don’t be afraid to hop on the computer and search for online help guides to answer your questions, such as GuideStar or the IRS Instruction Sheet.

Have you filed your Form 990 yet? What has been your biggest struggle?

  • Yvonne (Bonnie) Wells

    I am looking for information on form 990. Our secretary has died and we are unable to obtain her records. I was elected in Dec. 2014 and installed Jan. 10, 2015 and I have been told that this form needs to be soon. I have been told I need a password for the 990 account but do not know how to obtain one. Any help will be much appreciated.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      Thanks for reaching out. So sorry to hear about your secretary. You’ll need to reach out to the IRS to get this sorted out. It will depend on your organization’s fiscal year for when you file. More information can be found here—

  • JoAnne Weiss

    Question. We did a fundraiser last year. It was a concert and both the venue and the musician did not charge our organization anything. We charged 16 a ticket (similar to what the musical artist charges) and the attendees knew they were going to a benefit concert. So all the proceeds went to our organization. Do I put this on line 1 of 990ez or line 6b ?

    • Hi JoAnne!

      We’ll have to direct you to the IRS to help with any filing questions. Check here: There’s also a number here that you can call so they can help you with specific questions. I hope that helps!


  • buff

    Question about IRS Form 990 – Schedule A – Part III: Line 10b asks for Gross Income from Investments, and Line 12 asks for Other Income but specifically excludes gain or loss from sale of capital assets. Question: is there any place in Part III where capital gains/loss from sale of securities should be reported?

    • For specific questions on your 990 you’ll need to contact the IRS. Every organization is different and they’ll be able to help you work out the details. We want to make sure you’re getting the best help with your form as possible!

    • Steve

      I have the same question (I found this discussion by googling the problem). Part III, question 12 says, “Do not include gain or loss from the sale of other assets,” but does not say where I should record it!! Since the donation of stock is a pretty common thing, I would expect this answer to be readily available.

  • russ

    Lyndsey, I filed the 990ez when I had $210k in income. I have filled out the 990 and now I have to answer to the IRS why the mistake was made. What is an acceptable answer?

    • Russ—my only advice is to be honest in the situation. I’m sorry that I can’t provide more help than that.

  • Beverly Hamilton

    So if you have only 5 contributors who gave more than $5,000 each, are those the only ones you include on Schedule B or are you now obligated to include all donors?

  • Has anyone attended – either in person or via webinar – a really good overview course on preparing the 990?

    • Heidi Schulman Roger

      did you ever get an answer to this? i found this website by searching for that exact question. thanks.

  • Jerilee Zezula

    Filling out 990 ez for the first time. We receive many donations through a business foundation that offers 50% matching. The checks to us come from the foundation and they are over the $5000 or 2% limit required for schedule B, The individual employees actually donate less.

    Who is considered the contributor for schedule B? The Foundation (check amount), the individual employee? or the amount that foundation itself contributes? How should it be handled?

  • John Martello

    I need help and can’t seem to find an answer, especially from the IRS. In Part I and Part II The net and total assets are supposed to agree with each other yet when I follow the so called instructions (which a very, very, very lacking in instruction) the amount comes out different. Each year the difference is usually the exact amount that was deposited in the bank. Under savings I put the amount currently in the account, am I supposed to list that or place the amount entered? No matter how I add all of these amounts up, it always comes out with a difference that is supposed to agree with each other.. can someone help me with what seems to be an obvious solution I am just not seeing?

  • Cheryl

    If our 501(c)(3) received grant funds from the state (under $20,000) which form is required?

  • jamminson66

    My question pertains to 990 part I question 3 and 4. I read the instruction on Part VI line 1a & 1b and still having a hard time figuring out what they are exactly asking for. We are a Veterans of Foreign Wars Post and we are all volunteers with the exception of our bartenders. We have officers that are voted in every year (Commander, Sr. Vice, Jr. Vice, Quartermaster and 3 Trustees). All of our members have voting rights at our membership meetings. So would the answer to these questions be for the number of officers we have or number of members?