Newsmaker: Web mistress - Fiona Dawe, Chief executive, YouthNet UK

Dominic Wood

The past two years have been a challenge for Fiona Dawe, negotiating with some of the country's best known charities to develop the first confidential online advice service for young people.

There have been some "emotional and fraught" times, she says, but the work has paid off and will be officially launched tomorrow, offering young people confidential answers to sensitive personal questions from seven charities including Brook, Samaritans, Sane and Shelter.

The task of setting up the site began in June 2002 when Dawe invited some leading sexual, emotional and housing advice charities to join an advisory group. None refused, and three drug charities are negotiating to fill the final gap in provision. Dawe says YouthNet was firm from the outset about what it wanted from each partner. Although her charity is relatively small, with an annual income of £2.5m, she was confident enough to demand that if the big boys wanted to join in, they would have to adopt a youth-friendly tone in the way they answered questions on the site.

At the same time, she assured them that if problems arose over the content of answers given to young people, the legal responsibility rested with the site operators.

The system they devised allows users to type in questions which are passed to the relevant charity. Users are given an identity number to retrieve the answer when they return to the site. Relationship issues will be answered by YouthNet's own team of agony advisers, and managers will act as back-up consultants when highly sensitive issues arise. Dawe admits that managing several partnerships was quite a handful, yet none fell through, although the launch was delayed.

"Some said: 'We thought we were partners, but now you're being aggressive'. But we had to be," says Dawe. "It's not easy working in partnership. Everyone has their own worries and the question is: are we all going to remain cordial if the shit hits the fan?"

Dawe believes that YouthNet's experience of hundreds of smaller-scale partnerships has made its staff adept at smoothing over fractious relationships.

All 360 volunteer centres in England and 260 national charities partner YouthNet by providing many volunteering opportunities to its online database,

This site was launched in 2000, around the same time that Dawe took office.

She freely admits that not enough of the site's 62,000 volunteering opportunities are suitable for young people. "One of the weaker aspects of the database is that a lot of the organisations don't necessarily have opportunities that are designed for the 16 to 24 age group."

She believes there are fewer group and young person-led activities than there are young people willing to volunteer. But Dawe is keen to rectify the problem: "It is something that the Year of the Volunteer will address."

She has a good chance of success, not least because patience seems to be one of her virtues. Three decades ago, she spent seven months volunteering with young offenders at CSV to break into the voluntary sector. CSV then gave Dawe her first paid charity job, after which she spent six years in senior management roles at the National Centre for Volunteering.

Her experience has left her with firm views. If something resembling AmeriCorps crops up in the Russell Commission's report on a new youth volunteering strategy this spring, she insists it should be called 'citizen service' rather than volunteering.

She is also sceptical about the commission's idea of a website with reviews of people's experiences of volunteering. "One disaffected kid could completely trash an organisation," she says.

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