Newsmaker: Shining star - Erica Roberts, Chief executive, Guidestar UK

Maria Clegg

Erica Roberts gives the impression that, in the event of a house move, she would be the first person to arrive with a kettle, teabags, a packet of biscuits, a toolbox - probably a few spare light bulbs too - and she would be getting down to work even before the removal van had pulled away.

In October last year, Roberts was appointed the first chief executive of Guidestar UK. The organisation, the result of an initiative by the Institute of Philanthropy, received a £2.9m grant from the Government to create an online database of voluntary and community organisations.

The database will be open to everyone - policy makers, grant makers, donors, volunteers or the general public - and it is widely predicted to revolutionise the public face of the voluntary sector.

Roberts' first day as chief executive was the same day that Guidestar UK came into existence. But seven years before, she had undergone an even more extreme baptism as director of the Millennium Awards scheme. She had to pull together a 22-strong team and put the systems in place to distribute £200m of Lottery grants to some 35,000 individuals and community groups - and all from an office in a rented attic room.

If that visionary project began in less than auspicious surroundings, the offices of the UK's newest and most talked-about voluntary sector launch are also surprisingly austere. A block away from Leicester Square's tacky splendour, London's smallest lift shudders to a stop and opens, with some persuasion, onto a cramped office where around ten people are working with all the determined focus of a dotcom start-up.

A charity in its own right, Guidestar is backed by the Charity Commission and the Home Office's Active Community Unit. The charity model is based on the Guidestar information database pioneered in the US. Buzz Schmidt, who launched it there a decade ago, is a trustee of Guidestar UK, but it will be an independent entity.

Most of the information on the database will come from the Charity Commission's Public Register of Charities. Additional financial and narrative data will come from annual reports and the financial statements filed with the Charity Commission. Charities will be able to upload additional information.

In the US, Guidestar has had a massive effect on how people give. The ability to point the donor towards up-to-date audited information offers credibility and, although some charities in the US initially baulked at the idea of information filed to the IRS being made public, the sector has now embraced the transparency it has introduced.

One of Guidestar's aims is to give the public a better understanding about the voluntary sector as a whole, as well as what a particular charity does. "We want it to be as well-known as the Yellow Pages. The public learns about the voluntary sector through direct contact or stories that they read in the papers, and there is a gap for this kind of sector-wide resource."

Roberts admits, though, that there is some nervousness about what Guidestar will mean for the sector. "People want to know how this will be funded in the long-term, and we need to find out more about the sector's needs," she says. "There will always be a basic free service, but we might look at a subscriber service for 'power users'. There may also be a case for public funding if Guidestar is seen to be providing a good public service."

Roberts outlines Guidestar's potential for fundraisers, such as compiling reports on sub-sectors and mapping trends. Charities will be interested in proposals for an online donation service. Data could be packaged for certain audiences, for example for companies who want to give employees the opportunity to volunteer.

"The site should be able to provide efficiencies," Roberts says. At Guidestar's launch, the Charity Commission's policy director estimated that it will provide savings worth £18m in its first three years.

Guidestar will carry out an initial 'soft launch' of the website in a series of phases from the start of next year. The first will cover the 160,000 registered charities in England and Wales, followed by Scotland and Northern Ireland, then 'excepted' and 'exempted' charities in England and Wales. When the voluntary sector has become accustomed to using the resource, it will be promoted to the general public.

"Charities will be able to look at their individual entries, and there will be a three-month window after the launch for us to respond to their comments." Roberts is keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the Guidestar initiative, and one of her priorities is to ensure that there is a clear understanding of how charities can make best use of the site.

Although many of the details are subject to consultation, Roberts is adamant on one point. "There will be no league tables," she insists. "People using the site will make up their own minds based on the information that charities give about themselves. There will be checks on how the data is collected, but we will take what charities say about themselves at face value. There have been no problems in the US with that approach and it isn't our role to edit or exercise judgement on a charity's work."

But there have been judgements on hers. In 2001, Roberts received an OBE for her work for the Millennium Commission. "Curtsying and walking backwards isn't something you're called upon to do very often," she muses, recalling her palace nerves. "I could never have imagined where my career would take me. I felt very privileged to be involved in setting up an organisation that marked a moment in time."

She reflects on the Millennium Awards as a project that changed the face of Britain. "What we had was a very powerful social model. It was inspirational to see people doing so much with such small amounts."

Not bad for a project that began life in a hired attic room with a leaky roof.


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