Guidestar for Sale

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 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, 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 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.


  1. Rob, you make a great case and I appreciate that you cite GuideStar’s mission during your argument. If we assume that GuideStar is trying to further their mission and acting rationally, why do you think they have not taken some of the steps you suggest?

    Also, free online information is often supported by ads. Would you find it acceptable if a Google owned GuideStar displayed ads for competing charities next to the 990s? What about ads from wealth management firms or luxury goods ads?

  2. Rob Johnston says:

    Guidestar started when online advertising was not as well established as it is now. And I know that they have worked to find ways to earn their keep. Unfortunately, in my mind, they have chosen to use the premium route, offering special access and reports to foundations and other relatively high-paying customers.

    To best serve their mission: “to revolutionize philanthropy and nonprofit practice with information,” they have to make their offering to the widest market. That market includes the person searching for information on a nonprofit using a regular search engine, such as Google. I would not object if that information was accompanied by advertising. I use Google and scores of sites that post Google ads and the ads rarely get in my way. (Even when the information is as serious as the 990 filing for a favored nonprofit.) If the site is presenting genuine information I am seeking, the ads are nothing. (On the other hand, if the site is a lure with some recycled bit of information to support ads, I am not pleased.)

    Guidestar has established itself as an important resource. If it opened its data to the whole web and invited people to add information, it could move from a nice front end for 990 reports to something that might indeed revolutionize philanthropy through information. That information could also expand beyond tax filings to include “the wisdom of the crowd.” The reason the Internet Movie Database works is that it provides information and opinion from thousands of sources (“I saw this film shooting on the corner of this and that.”)

    If Guidestar doesn’t open, perhaps they should change the mission to something more accurate, “to serve the haves with federal tax filings on U.S. nonprofits.”

  3. Why don’t you poll your readers to see if they agree with Rob’s excellent suggestions, especially that Guidestar drops the registration and log-in requirements. Might even write Guidestar yourself and ask them to comment?

  4. I’ll give that some thought. Maybe I’ll do something like that at the end of the One Post Challenge that incorporates all of the different thought pieces we’ve discussed.

  5. Rob, thanks for calling GuideStar “indispensable.” It’s something that we work hard at doing and so it’s always nice to hear someone say it. As a matter of fact, I agree with a lot of what you said.

    Much of your blog focused on GuideStar being more SEO friendly, and as it turns out, your comments couldn’t be more timely. We will soon be launching a beta of a new way to report and view information on nonprofit organizations which no longer requires user log-in. Even though over 80 percent of our users currently do not register to get the information they are seeking, we would like to make it even easier for donors, the general public and the search crawlers to use our site.

    We’re also excited about these new report pages because they will be the first step to building a more interactive community of donors and nonprofits. These pages will allow nonprofits to add videos, pictures, testimonials, and more in order to give donors a closer look at how they deliver on their missions. We also plan to add social networking widgets and tools next year to make this a dynamic information exchange.

    Should GuideStar consider selling out? We don’t think so. As you pointed out, we are increasing our financial sustainability by lessening our dependence on foundation funding and increasing our earned revenue stream. That doesn’t, however, diminish our commitment to providing a public service. We continue to make a substantial amount of nonprofit information available at no charge to our users and we have plans to expand our free public services in 08.

    I happen to think we’re on the right track and I hope you will agree that selling out isn’t what it takes to move GuideStar to the next level. I look forward to your comments on our new beta site! And, thanks for the suggestions.

  6. Bob, kudos to you for taking on Rob’s post head on. Taking your statements at face value it seems that Rob’s criticisms were spot on and actually shared by your staff and you’re moving to address them.

    Personally, I’d be interested in suggestions from readers on more features. It seems that Bob is open to comments.

  7. Rob Johnston says:

    Though I’m sorry my posting didn’t attract the attentions of the business development folks at Fidelity, Google, or Yahoo, I am grateful for Bob Ottenhoff’s response and will look forward to any improvements that Guidestar initiates.

    It’s true that search engine optimization (SEO) would cover a portion of my concerns. I think that a more search-open site will serve many more people seeking information on nonprofits.

    I’m sorry that the other additions Bob describes seem to continue a one-way (nonprofits to public) conversation and ignore the possibilities of using the “wisdom of the crowd” to make a resource more complete than IRS documents and nonprofit “videos, pictures, testimonials, and more.” If Guidestar is opening up, go all the way and make it the center for public discussion of nonprofit organizations. Exploit your cache of IRS documentation and your authority as a valuable resource (along with your new search visibility).

    I believe that posting advertising within the new site would be perfectly fine. I don’t hear complaints about the ads in the New York Times or Washington Post. Quality information and community are worth advertising IMHO.

    I do hope for better from Guidestar and look forward to coming changes. Bob Ottenhoff’s participation here is a testimony to his willingness to participate and to Sean’s credibility. At the same time, I hope others will join me in urging Guidestar to make the most of its site and adopt more openness and participation. I will offer one possibility:

    For each nonprofit listing, enable and invite public comments. Invite people who have given to the organization, volunteered for it, worked for it, or benefited from its services to share knowledge and perspectives. Offer some balance to the nonprofit’s formal report page and the IRS stats.

    Good luck Guidestar.

  8. I applaud Guidestar’s efforts to go beyond 990’s.

    While I’ve shared one of my own posts regarding the risks of 990-based rating and rankings of Charity Navigator, Bob Ottenhoff’s comment added to Rob Johnston’s above, and divided by (just kidding) “a Fundraisers” proof that good ideas require great marketing, raises a fascinating question.

    Would the comments of Rob’s “people who have given to the organization, volunteered for it, worked for it, or benefited from its services” add clarity to a nonprofit’s profile?

    Perhaps. Know that I believe the true value of the Internet is listening.

    Should these comments be moderated? Perhaps not. But, if not, how would anyone access their accuracy? Would simply posting comments be as flawed as 990-ratio rankings — but for different reasons?

    The “One Post Challenge” is provoking thought and a rolling-model of internet interaction.

    While I would like to see Guidestar and others explore various types of ratings and / or comments from donors, those receiving services, and others, those comments might benefit from a substantial disclaimer.

    Why? Because of the differences between those who give and those who write — between the characteristics of those who seek to praise and those who wish to criticize — and, between those individuals with valid comments to contribute and those simply motivated by others to record a comment.

    I find the difficulty of producing “fast and simple nonprofit ratings” to be the beauty of making individual contributions.

    Identifying the world’s best nonprofits may not be easy, but most donors only need to invest the time in getting to know a dozen or so nonprofits. When they do, the quality of their own assessment simply can’t be beat.

    Giving is that personal.

  9. Rob Johnston says:

    Michael Soper’s point about the need to moderate is important. Yes, the effort to post comments is often taken by those who like to talk (write), not necessarily by those who have the most to add. At the same time, omitting the customers’ voice because it can be colored by cranky posters leaves us with the same one-way communication.

    There are available methods for separating “verified” official information from comments and ratings. Look again at the Internet Movie Database, for example. The page for “American Gangster” [] includes the user-selected star rating at the top of the page, then presents the verified facts about the movie until the bottom of the page where “User Comments” and a forum are shared. I find it easy to understand that one section presents the facts and the other section provides the opinions. The combination helps me to understand whether I might want to make the choice of seeing this movie.

    Guidestar can support the same selection process, and through testing and refinement, insure that the balance between verified information and public opinion are in some useful balance.

    By the way, IMDB accepts public input on the facts presented as well as the opinion. It served something like Wikipedia years before Wikipedia was born. Guidestar could open to take verifiable facts from readers in addition to rants and raves.

  10. The overuse of 990 data propels my posts and underscores the need for “a better mouse trap.”

    Rob Johnston’s post and those of others reminded me there are many, if not unlimited possibilities to improve. And the key to success is, in Rob’s words, “testing and refinement.”

    I liked Rob’s original post regarding Guidestar because it kick-started my thinking. I agree that free access to their data, greater input from nonprofits, and evolving ways of encouraging / sharing donor, service recipient, and others moderated comments would be valuable to us all — donors and nonprofits.

    When others can attract attention by hyping 990-based ratings and rankings, there is a demand for concise, content rich profiles of nonprofits.

    It’s encouraging to see Bob Ottenhoff / Guidestar seeking input and making a commitment to improve.

  11. Rob,
    I actually wrote a post back in March comparing movie ratings to charity ratings and cited IMDb. You can find it here if you’re interested.

  12. Rob Johnston says:

    I agree with your premise and suggest that “user comments” would make a valuable supplement to IRS filings, nonprofit reporting, and academic studies.