The Urban Institute is putting the final filigree on a new online gold mine of information about the country's think tanks, charities and other nonprofits.

With the help of the Internal Revenue Service, the institute has been downloading the tax forms filed last year by about 200,000 nonprofit organizations (known in the biz as 501c3s), a tax basket that includes groups from the American Cancer Society to the Heritage Foundation. The IRS has been scanning the forms.

Got a fund-raising letter from Poodles in Crisis? You'll be able to check out its programs, officers and income online.

Of course, the database also will make it easier for the reflexively nosy among us to identify those folks being paid the most for their good works (the salaries of each organization's top five earners are listed), parse dollars spent on fund-raising and see who's garnering the big government bucks.

Federal law requires charities to make these Form 990s available to the public, but that doesn't mean the information has been easily accessible.

"At the moment, the only way to access them is to go individually to the organizations," or to write to the IRS, said Linda Lampkin, who runs the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics. "This will give instant access."

Three years in the making, the multimillion-dollar project is set to debut later this fall. Watch the institute's Web site for details (http://www.urban.org).

ODD COUPLE: The left-leaning Center for National Policy has announced that it will break with recent tradition and give half of its annual Edmund S. Muskie Distinguished Public Service Award to . . . a Republican. This year Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) will share the prize for their work on foreign affairs, from Cuba to Kosovo. Previous recipients of the four-year-old award include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lee H. Hamilton, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). A blowout is planned at the National Building Museum in mid-October.

Word is that CNP is working on upping its appeal to the less familiar side of the aisle. But "it's not like this is the first Republican to walk through our doors," said center spokesman Justin Leach, who points out that the tank has had GOP speakers at other events.

ON THE AIR: If you happened to catch the local broadcast of Rush Limbaugh's show in the past few days, you know the Competitive Enterprise Institute is doing more than just thinking about Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. In the past week, CEI has been running ads denouncing CAFE during Limbaugh's broadcast on WMAL, and in previous weeks bought time on 10 stations in Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The occasion is the upcoming consideration of the transportation appropriations bill in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers want to begin laying the groundwork for a tightening of the standards. Currently, they are set at 27.5 miles per gallon for car fleets, and 20.7 miles per gallon for trucks, minivans and SUVs.

The radio ads are the latest salvo in a war CEI is waging against CAFE. Earlier this year, the group released a controversial study that claimed CAFE kills, albeit indirectly. Strict gas mileage standards equals smaller cars equals worse car crashes, CEI researchers claimed. Their estimate: 2,600 to 4,500 fatalities were due to CAFE passenger car standards in 1997.

From its start in 1984, the institute has thumbed it nose at the traditional think tank model, instead adopting what it terms a "full service approach" that begins with research but doesn't end there, stretching instead to dogged issue advocacy. CEI thinkers have been after CAFE standards since drawing their first organizational breath, even taking the federal government to court three times.

The CAFE fight puts them on the side of automakers (from whom they receive some funding), and pits them against enviros. Both sides have taken their case to key states.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: It was the 15th annual Cato Institute Salmonfest on Sunday at the lakefront Falls Church home of Cato President Ed Crane. More than 400 staff members and supporters took boat rides, ate snow cones, rubbed libertarian elbows and wondered whether RSVP'ed Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes would show up (he didn't). Of course they also tucked into 250 pounds of high-priced grilled fish. Brain food for brainiacs, maybe?

NET NEWS: Here's an Internet address you've got to love: http://www.overlawyered.com, a Web site recently launched by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Walter Olson. Olson writes that he launched the site to document "the need for reform of the American civil justice system." The page is updated regularly with legal horror stories, data links and such.

FINAL THOUGHT: Next week the Center for Media and Public Affairs will release its latest report: "Murder, Malice and Mayhem: Violence in Popular Entertainment." The center compares coverage of violence on broadcast TV, cable, movies and music videos. And it's already got a sequel in the works for release later this fall: "Lewd, Crude and Rude: Sex and Sleaze in Popular Entertainment." Is it ratings sweeps week?

Have news about think tanks, policy-oriented foundations or nonprofits? E-mail it to ideas@washpost.com