People Management: News in focus - A guiding star or a money spinner?

Georgina Lock

Charity database Guidestar.org.uk has not ruled out charging visitors for information.

The influx of donations to charities following the Asian earthquake disaster has highlighted the concerns of givers wanting to make sure their money is going to the right places.

With evidence that some charity collections have been fraudulent, there is a greater awareness that donors might sometimes be wise to check on charities before parting with their money.

A new website - due to be launched this summer - aims to help with this by giving a comprehensive database of financial and other information on all the registered charities in England and Wales, with Scotland and Northern Ireland to be included later.

Guidestar.org.uk has been set up as a charity with £2,885,000 of government funding, and states that it will "promote and support the work of all UK charities by creating a comprehensive and easily accessible source of information about their activities and finances, made available free to the public through a website".

The site aims to give information not only to the donors but also to charities, funders, volunteers and anyone who wants information on any registered charity in the country. However, there are doubts about the usefulness of the site because most of the information to be published on Guidestar is already in the public domain.

Charity 'Google'

The operator's response is that the information has never before been brought together on one site. Les Hems, research and development director at Guidestar, said: "We want to be the 'Google' of the charity sector."

The site was inspired by Guidestar in the US, where people have to pay to get much of that information. Bearing in mind the government money involved, the fact that the UK version is being built by the same team as the US Guidestar has caused concern.

Erica Roberts, chief executive of Guidestar, says that she doesn't want people to compare it to the US site, but does not rule out the possibility of a subscription for those who want to "get a lot of information out of us". She says: "The free service has to give users the information they want without overwhelming them with information."

Stephen Lee, director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Management at Henley Management College, says the use of Treasury funding meant it would be "a disgrace" if the site went the same way as the US version.

Adrian Sargeant, professor of marketing at the University of the West of England, is also unsure why Guidestar has taken so much money to set up, but dismisses claims that it might overlap with a new site he has recently set up called Charityfacts.

He says that Charityfacts is designed to deal with "a public trust and confidence issue" because most donors overestimate how much charities spend on fundraising. He thinks the public is unlikely to wade through the information available on Guidestar - which won't, like his site, have general information on issues such as how much it costs to raise £1. He feels Guidestar will be more useful for charities, and Charityfacts will be more appropriate for individual donors.

Many people in the voluntary sector are concerned that Guidestar might lead to league tables - particularly those working in charities who argue that accurate comparisons between different organisations are virtually impossible to reach.

Guidestar dismisses the idea of charity league tables on the site because information about each charity will be accessed separately rather than alongside each other. "Crude league tables are of no use to anyone," says Hems.

He emphasises that the site will be focusing just as much on the explanations provided by charities as on their financial information. Guidestar is talking to charities to give them the chance to include any information they would like - from financial details to links to their websites.

But there is still a lot of confusion surrounding Guidestar that needs to be addressed. Some charities feel that Guidestar might be an overlap of what is already available - for example, through the Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission is backing Guidestar, saying: "This project is about enhancing the quality and availability of data, not replacing the commission's statutory role in maintaining a register of charities."

Despite this, some charities are still in the dark. A spokesman for ActionAid said it is unclear about the proposed site and wants to know more. And an Oxfam spokeswoman said she hadn't heard of Guidestar.

The site clearly has some way to go, and the launch has recently been delayed until the summer. But Roberts says that when the current consultation period is finished, the Guidestar team will have taken account of what individual charities want and created a useful tool for those working in the sector and beyond.

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