Askthesite.org has been established in partnership with Brook, BSS (Broadcast Support Services), Citizens Advice, Samaritans, Sane, Shelter and YoungScot to provide information on a wide range of topics. The only omission from the portfolio is a drugs charity, although Youthnet hopes to get one on board next year. The site has also recruited a team of agony aunts and uncles to tackle questions about relationships.
The project will cost £800,000 a year to run and funders include the Community Fund, which gave £850,000, and the Vodafone UK Foundation, which will provide £1.5m over three years. The site expects to answer up to 1,500 questions each month.
Each partnership has been agreed under different terms. Some charities will be paid by Youthnet for each question they answer, while others have worked out reciprocal arrangements.
Youthnet has phased in its partners since October 2003 and has been testing the website this year. It will be launched officially on 27 January. "The jigsaw has come together in a formidable way," said Fiona Dawe, the chief executive of Youthnet, which already operates the do-it.org and thesite.org internet sites.
Youthnet has trained advisers employed by the partner charities to provide information in a youth-friendly way. "Our partners have the answers but we have the ear of youth," said Maddy Heil, communications manager at Youthnet. "Together we can deliver expert advice in a digestible manner to young people when, where and how they need it."
Five of the charities already operate their own online advice services, which will run alongside the new initiative. But Shelter and Samaritans say partnering Youthnet's website will help them to reach a younger audience.
The system promises confidentiality. Once a user has typed in a question and selected the charity they would like to help them, they are given an identity number to use to retrieve the answer when they return to the site. Answers are promised within three working days, though askthesite.org aims to reply well before then.
Dawe said Samaritans had been enlisted as a "backstop" for people with really serious problems. Users will be urged to click on a "panic button" on askthesite.org's homepage. This will take them through to the Samaritans' own site, where they will be invited to enter into an email relationship.
Youthnet plans eventually to extend the service to mobile phones and digital television.