The first entry in the One Post Challenge comes from Rob Johnston:
Rob Johnston has more than twenty years experience working for and with nonprofit organizations. He served as executive director of the Helene & Grant Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Pace University, and for twelve years he worked for the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management and its successor the Leader to Leader Institute, where he served as president from 2001 to 2003 and led its program development and publications programs from 1991 to 2001. Johnston worked as editor of the Foundation Center’s Philanthropy News Digest, and has developed the database backends on Web sites for businesses and nonprofits operating in the United States, Europe, and Central America.
Rob writes an occasionally updated (non-philanthropy) blog.
Send in your entry for the One Post Challenge and see your ideas appear here. Remember to drop your comments on each post. Most importantly, encourage your peers who are not hooked in to the online conversation to use this opportunity to join in through reading the posts, commenting and submitting their own post to the challenge.
Guidestar For Sale — Or Why It Should Be
By Rob Johnston
Guidestar, the indispensable resource of information on United States nonprofit organizations and foundations, should be acquired by a company with Internet interests and be made into a true hub of nonprofit information and community. An acquisition by Google, Yahoo, Amazon, IAC, or News Corporation, for example, could bring real Internet and community smarts and produce a site that is more useful to donors, nonprofit organizations, foundations, interested citizens, scholars, and anyone seeking to know more about the vital social sector.
The inspiration for this proposal came from a careful comparison of the current offerings of Guidestar and the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). As it became clear that Guidestar could be improved by the adoption of many of the approaches of IMDB, it occurred to me that it might also benefit from a similar corporate structure.
To any movie-loving, Internet geek who is also interested in nonprofits, it’s natural to wish that Guidestar would be more like the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Though these two Web sites have very different audiences, their purpose has some similarities and Guidestar could benefit by adopting even more similarities in how they create and share information.
First, a bit of my history. In the early 1990s I was an eager Internet pioneer. After using CompuServe in the late 1980s (and getting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to list a small number of products on the CompuServe “Electronic Mall” in 1987-88), I was an early subscriber to The Pipeline, a text-based Internet service in New York City (founded by author James Gleick). I also subscribed to Wired Magazine (which started publishing in 1993) and would eagerly look forward to its “Net Surf” column which would list two pages of finds on the Internet including news groups, public information, and ftp sites. These resources would occasionally give up their secrets to my inexpert explorations.
A few years later, the World Wide Web and Netscape’s browser changed the way we used the Internet. One of the first useful sites I found was the Cardiff Internet Movie Database, which was based at a university in Wales. From what I have since learned, the IMDB grew out the activities of an Usenet newsgroup and a number of lists assembled by users. Like many community sites celebrated today (e.g. the online encyclopedia wikipedia.org) IMDB was created by the collaboration of movie fans from around the world. Discovering and using it led me to a few insights. One, my wife and I would not have to buy copies of the annual encyclopedias of movies (or the Microsoft Cinemania CD-ROM) in order to plan our video rentals or efforts to watch the work of a particular director or actor. Two, I learned about the power of the Web to allow disparate people to contribute to a common collection and create a resource valuable to thousands more. I remember using IMDB as a practical, understandable example to explain the usefulness of the Internet and the Web.
In 1994 Philanthropic Research, Inc. was founded and shortly thereafter began to do business as “Guidestar.” The mission of the nonprofit is “to revolutionize philanthropy and nonprofit practice with information.” Its Web site also notes: “GuideStar was created to support charitable entities through the free flow of information in a public forum, to enable supporters and nonprofit managers to research and benchmark organizations’ missions, programs, and performance.” [Guidestar FAQ.]
Though Guidestar allows nonprofits to register and post information about their mission, governing boards, goals and accomplishments, I see it primarily as a powerful front end for the IRS 990 tax returns of the nation’s nonprofit organizations and foundations. The 990 form is the only public form that is required of all nonprofits (with budgets greater than $25,000 and excepting some religious institutions) so it is valuable for anyone trying to learn about individual organizations or compare a number of them.
On first glance, the similarity of Guidestar, which chronicles American nonprofit organizations, and IMDB, which chronicles movies worldwide, might not be obvious. On the other hand, both aim to present a collection of information about one set of entities that have many “moving parts.” From my use of both sites, and my participation as an active nonprofit executive and user of the Internet I propose that Guidestar could make its offerings more effective by being more like the IMDB. Following are areas where Guidestar could make the biggest improvements.
Open the Database to the Web
Guidestar should make its basic pages of information open to all visitors, without registration. It should also open these pages to search engines and their “spiders.” The result of this would be that more information on nonprofits would be available to more people, and combined with the point on community participation, Guidestar could become the definitive source for nonprofit information. For example, if I wrote a story or a blog posting about the American Red Cross or Sequoia Community Initiatives I could link to the organizations’ pages on Guidestar. IMDB follows this practice. Its entries on movies, actors, directors, etc. are open to all visitors and Web spiders. As a result, when people write about movies they include a link to the IMDB entry for related information. And because the information is open to search engines, when people use Web search engines to search for movies they get IMDB information at the top of the results. You can see from the results below what a difference this open access makes to the availability of information on search engines.
Where does the site appear in a Google search for material it covers?
We chose a set of topics we expected the IMDB and Guidestar to be able to provide information on and conducted the searches on Google. Below are listed the rankings of the site in question for each search topic.
Search for top five movies on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Films.
|Movie||Ranking of IMDB in Google results|
|1. Citizen Kane (1941)||2|
|2. Casablanca (1942)||2|
|3. The Godfather (1972)||2|
|4. Gone With the Wind (1939)||2|
|5. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)||2|
Search for top five nonprofits in the Chronicle of Philanthropy annual Philanthropy 400 survey, October 2006
|Organization||Ranking of Guidestar in Google results|
|1. The United Way of America||>50|
|2. The Salvation Army||50|
|3. AmeriCares Foundation||4|
|4. American Red Cross||>50|
|5. American Cancer Society||>50|
[Note: In order to provide links to the Guidestar pages for the sites listed above, I had to use JustGive.org, one of partner sites that uses Guidestar’s information. If I linked to the Guidestar page and you were not a member who was logged in, you’d get a login page and no information. Here’s the Guidestar link for United Way of America. By coincidence, the one organization that has a good result in the Google search, the AmeriCares Foundation, shows up there with a JustGive link. It’s a small demonstration of the usefulness of an open database.]
The comparison of these two sets of searches makes clear the advantages that Guidestar could gain if its information were widely available. Today, the likelihood that a searcher at Google will find a Guidestar listing is pretty slim. On the other hand, a Google searcher will almost always find the IMDB page for a movie in the first 5 listings. (It’s clear that the newest movie in our first search is more than 35 years old. To see if the IMDB position held for most recent movies, we searched for the top five movies by sales for the most recent weekend, 1-3 June 2007. IMDB was found on the 3rd listing for three of the top five and on the 4th listing for the other two. See below.)
|Movie||Ranking of IMDB in Google results|
|1. Pirates of the Caribbean-3 (2007)||4|
|2. Knocked Up (2007)||3|
|3. Shrek the Third (2007)||3|
|4. Mr. Brooks (2007)||3|
|5. Spider-Man 3 (2007)||4|
Relax the Login Restrictions
Currently, a visitor to Guidestar cannot get any specific information about a nonprofit organization without registering and logging in. There is no charge for this basic information, and the registration process is not too onerous. On the other hand, it is hard to understand that Guidestar gains more than it loses with this requirement. I have been registered to Guidestar for several years and I do not recall receiving email from them as a result of my registration. I respect this discretion and the respect for my email choices, at the same time I wonder why they require my registration when they seem to do so little with it?
I propose that Guidestar make its basic information available to all visitors (people and machines, as mentioned above) without a registration requirement. See the IMDB and how much it offers to any visitor. Guidestar can then continue to require registration for its higher levels of membership, and also for the participation I describe in the next section.
Invite Community Contributions
As a movie fan living in New York City I have had the chance to see lots of films in limited release, old films presented at nonprofit repertory houses, and to attend film festivals hosted by Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tribeca Film Festival. As an amateur of film I have found some errors and missing information on the IMDB and I have submitted corrections. Those items are now part of the site and available to all who visit. Guidestar should do the same and allow people add information or comments about a nonprofit. Today it allows only nonprofit representatives to maintain information about their organizations. It could expand the quality and quantity of the information in its listings if they allowed others to post information on the organizations they know. This would have to be administered with some central review, and requirements (for sources) set, but the net effect would be a strong site.
If Guidestar chose to, it could greatly expand the information that its users contribute. For example, it could track grants made by foundations, or accomplishments of organizations in the field. With an more open system, the wisdom of the wider nonprofit community could be tapped.
Consider Selling Out
In 1998 the IMDB was acquired by Amazon.com. In the process, the volunteer-run site became professionalized and people were hired into full-time roles to build and expand the site. Guidestar has been working to build a sustainable organization and shift its funding from contributions to earned income. Its 2006 financial reports [PDF] show that it has made progress in that effort.
Today Guidestar has a professional staff and has established rigorous methods for capturing information from the Internal Revenue Service and making it useful for specialized audiences. With more financial support and a new approach to making its information accessible, it could become the essential hub for things nonprofit. If it does not take a number of these suggested steps it may find itself left behind as the availability of digital tax filing information grows.
Take the opportunity, Google, to acquire a valuable operation collecting and making information available. Open it up to the world and expand the usefulness and reach of that information. Or, Yahoo, build on the database and establish nonprofit communities around the Guidestar core. Or, Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, acquire this resource and build a giving platform around it. This is underexploited asset, a gem waiting to be uncovered. Open it up and build on it now when both the need for effective nonprofits and the growing possibilities for charitable giving are so strong.