Fiona Dawe of YouthNet: The internet and social enterprises

Fiona Dawe, CEO of online-only young people's advice service Youthnet, explains how the internet has driven the social enterprise's success.

What does YouthNet do?

Youthnet… I suppose the quick way of describing us is a sort of not-for-profit dotcom. Except that we’re quite an old dotcom because we were invented just as the internet started up. We provide services, information, advice and guidance and support and volunteering opportunities to young adults. So we run which is all about everything for 16 to 24-four year olds – sex, drugs, housing, careers, money, the big online community. There’s an ask-the-site service that’s a kind of massive resource.

Why was YouthNet set up?

Our founder is actually Martin Lewis, who used to read the news and he was very keen on the idea that it would be really simple for young people to have the information at their fingertips and then they could be trusted to get on with life. So the idea was to give them all a book. Now the thing about a book is that when it’s a directory of useful organisations the instant it’s published it’s mostly out of date. So the idea was originally then to put the directory online. So that when a telephone number changed or some information changed you could immediately update it and it was immediately correct.

How is YouthNet financed?

Even though we act and feel and look like a company we have quite a lot of traditional charity money. About 25 per cent of our income is from government grants and one contract. So we have support from the Department of Health for sex and drugs and alcohol and substance misuse and that sort of thing, from the Department of Children, Schools and Families and also from the Office of the Third Sector – we’re a strategic partner. Most of our money at the moment also comes from corporate social responsibility. So the Vodafone Foundation has been very supportive and a number of other companies who either support the site or do it. Also private trusts and foundations.

How is the current downturn affecting things?

Well… the thing about the recession and the economic downturn is that it’s got some weird impacts really. One of the things… and I think it’s not the same for all social enterprises and all charities, it rather depends on what your business is like and what you’re on earth to do. From a YouthNet perspective we are at the moment spending money that we raised a year or two years ago. And we’ve got a huge amount of work to deliver fantastic projects and lots of things to do. But going forward in the next six to 36 months we’re anticipating it will be really seriously tough because the government money will be running out in 2011… lots of companies are not stopping giving money but they are giving less money out to fewer organisations, so even though their commitment might remain substantial with organisations there will be fewer of them and similarly trusts and foundations I think will probably find that in a year to two years’ time they will be reducing the level of… the number of their grants even if not the level of their grants and that those are the three key sources for us at the moment so we’re also looking to see how we can diversify revenue streams and things like that and find ways of getting more people to give us less.

Is running a social enterprise satisfying?

Well if you are asking me personally I guess I wouldn’t be in this business if I was… if I liked living in a risk-free zone. And the other thing also is that I’m a bit of an optimist so I somehow know that it will be all right in the end. We have a very supportive board of trustees who are also directors of the company, a highly motivated staff group… I guess there will be a bit of a leadership challenge when things begin to really bite, however if you do brilliant work, meet your beneficiaries’ needs and create the best impact you can, that tends to keep people cheerful, people like to do things which have positive effects. So at the moment that’s how we’re planning, we’re trying to make sure that our staff are as versatile as possible as well so that they are… the company and they are as resilient as we can be.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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Social Enterprises