Mastering The Black Art Of Reading 990s

The Iron Tongue of Midnight’s Lisa Hirsh is not the least bit pleased with the slipshod state of extracting data from IRS Form 990s (the form used by nonprofits to file annual financial returns). The most recent transgression that raised her hackles came from an article in the 4/12/14 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune that listed executive compensation figures for 22 opera organizations.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-171In the original version of the Union-Tribune article, the paper published total compensation figures labeled as base pay (an item that has since been amended) but perhaps unsurprisingly, diving executive compensation isn’t always a terribly straightforward process.

As it stands, the annual orchestra compensation reports here at Adaptistration include multiple paragraphs dedicated exclusively to explaining how executive compensation is reported, how it is compiled, what it may exclude, etc. (the most recent example). Consequently, all of this data is used to arrive at a total compensation figure.

Ideally, it would be nice if all of this info could be condensed into a single sentence sound bite, but then again, when is anything dealing with compensation that simple?

In the end, it pays to favor more text and less flashy imagery if it means helping others understand the multi-layered complexities involved with nonprofit performing arts organization executive compensation. And as Lisa mentioned in her article (thanks for the shout-out Lisa), if the Orchestra 990 Database project reaches its funding goal in the fall, you can look forward to a wealth of data and supporting documentation to help you become a master of the 990 black arts!

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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