Editorial: The future of GuideStar is in the balance

Stephen Cook, editor

The news that the chief executive and two other senior staff left GuideStar last week indicates that we are much closer to finding out what the real future of this huge charity information website is to be.

Its start-up funding of £2.7m from the Treasury and £1.9m from foundations is coming to an end, and the efforts of the remaining nine full-time staff are now directed mainly towards securing new income for the charity.

It's clear that it's not going to get any more public money. If it did, there would be an explosion of indignation from sections of the voluntary sector that, out of envy, principle or whatever, have pronounced themselves staggered by the lavishness of the start-up deal. In fact, GuideStar accepts that the time for grants is over and that it has to earn its living by selling its information in various forms, such as data licences and live data feeds. Government departments are among its potential clients.

Whatever the critics say, GuideStar has created something unprecedented.

It takes information on 167,000 charities from the Charity Commission database and adds a powerful search engine and a facility for charities to add extra information about themselves. In a trice, you can call up information on, say, all the disability charities operating in Yorkshire.

Since its launch nearly three months ago, according to Guide-Star, more than a million pages have been viewed and 22,000 charities have reviewed or augmented their entries. Awareness seems to be growing, with potentially momentous implications for a wider knowledge of the charity world.

One has to ask why the facility was not developed in partnership with the Charity Commission in the first place, and the commission is still hovering to pick up the pieces if GuideStar plunges to earth. It likes GuideStar's 'front end'. But what could be lost under this scenario is an aspect that is evidently attractive to charities and other users - the ability for charities to add information about themselves. The commission, as the legal regulator, is nervous about unpoliced content.

If GuideStar does manage to stay viable, good luck to it. If it doesn't, it should clearly be preserved as a public service, and the commission would be its natural home. Perhaps a regime could be devised whereby charities continue to add their own information while staying within parameters that exclude unwarranted claims about themselves or others.

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