There are a couple of ways to quickly locate IRS form 990s for foundations and nonprofits you are working with. I used to always use Guidestar, but it's kind of a pain to have to log in just to grab a couple of 990s.
These days, I prefer the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics. It's free and fast, and you don't need to log in to use it.
Your search can be as basic or detailed as you like -- this website allows for simple nonprofit name keyword searches, and has a bunch of functionalities for more sophisticated searches.
If you just need a 990 for a foundation or nonprofit you're researching, simply enter the organization's name and any other identifying information you have here. Then click on the name of the organization you're looking for and select the "Form 990s" tab. You'll see a list of downloadable 990s, often extending back every year since 2000.
Another simple functionality that I have used when fundraising for community-based organizations is the County Browser which allows you to select a state and then a county. You'll then get a list of all the private foundations in that county. This is a sortable list, so you can quickly identify the largest foundations (you can sort by assets and dollar total of grants given).
There are many community development applications for these National Center for Charitable Statistics tools beyond just fundraising. For example, the County Browser also allows you to view the nonprofits engaged in "social capital" activities -- "clubs, sports, and other mutual benefit or social bonding organizations" in any one county.
Other cool features of the National Center for Charitable Statistics:
- View the largest public charities in each state (what a great way to look for a nonprofit job if you're relocating!)
- Do a geographic search, which means that you can enter a zip code, county or state, then search by nonprofit activity (options are arts, education, environment, health, human services, international and civil rights/social action). This would be a great way to find nonprofit partners or do research on the need for services in a certain sector.
If you are on the other side of the fence and you're tasked with creating your own organization's annual IRS form 990, then read my friend Jenn Rowell's 4 Quick Tips to Make Your 990 Shine.
As she writes, "It is a rare person that genuinely loves the 990 (and a good portion of those that do are salary snooping--yea, you know who you are). For most of us its a pain--the questions that seem to be written to intentionally confuse, the endless stream of check boxes, the disclosures--yikes!" Jenn gives great advice and points you to some more resources if the 990 is your job!