News analysis: Guidestar sets out to be the voluntary sector'sGoogle

Database will put information on charities at the public's fingertips, writes Emma Maier.

At the click of a button, a summary page appears, giving a concise yet unremarkable introduction to the RNID. But behind this simple facade is probably the most comprehensive database of UK charities ever compiled.

Guidestar UK chief executive Erica Roberts gave Third Sector an exclusive preview.

The RNID's summary page is the key to a vault of information: from the charity's key personnel, achievements and policies on reserves and investments to financial data. The charity can update its entry and add information such as press releases and upcoming events online.

Each of the 163,000 registered charities in England and Wales will have similar entries when it is launched this summer. It is this combination of financial and narrative information that makes Guidestar unique.

The site's piece de resistance is its search facility. "We want to be the charity Google," says Roberts. "Guidestar uses a new technique called clustering. If a user searches for autism, the engine will first search for all organisations using that word before looking through these records to find other commonly occurring words, such as autistic spectrum disorder, research, care and support. It then groups the results according to these new terms.

"This allows charities to be grouped according to the way they define themselves, without ever being shoehorned into a pre-defined set of classifications," she adds.

The search function will be useful for members of the public browsing for a charity. Meanwhile, the individual charity pages will help staff, for example grant fundraisers needing to compile performance reports.

The page displaying newly added press releases and events will attract the media too.

The site will be free to access. "Rather than developing extra paid-for services up front, we'd rather respond to demand," says Roberts, who insists that Guidestar will never develop a function for comparing charities.

"That is not a route we want to go down," she stresses.

The project will be funded from a number of sources when the initial government funding runs out next year. "Hopefully we will get some grants, we would be interested in sponsorship and we will generate income from data licensing or online subscriptions," says Roberts. "There is some argument for continued government funding."

The key to success will be in charities promoting the site. Roberts is planning regional workshops to help smaller charities use the site to its potential. "We'll need to find a grass-roots partner to work with," says Roberts.

- See Finance, page 16

KEY POINTS

- Guidestar will have entries for each of the 163,000 registered charities in England and Wales

- Charities will be able to update their own entries and add information such as press releases

- Guidestar's search facility uses new clustering technology that groups search results thematically

- Access will be free

- It will be funded from a number of sources when government funding runs out next year.

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