There's always some nervousness when a government programme is announced for the voluntary sector, not least because of the suspicion that our leaders are as interested in advancing their own agendas as they are in fostering genuine community activity and enterprise. The £125m Futurebuilders fund, put forward by the Treasury in 2002 and intended to help voluntary organisations gear up to provide public services, was no exception.
The nervousness increased when it emerged that Futurebuilders' priorities were remarkably similar to the list of government-imposed headings for the Big Lottery Fund: community cohesion, crime prevention, education and learning, health and social care, and support for children and young people.
This week we have the proof of the pudding - the first round of investment offers from Futurebuilders to successful applicants. A total of £4.2m has been offered to 13 organisations around the country, and the list of recipients offers a clear flavour of what the new fund is all about.
The Who Cares? Trust gets the most money, £1.3m, to develop an online support service for children and young people in care, which will be marketed to social services departments and primary care trusts. The beneficiaries of the other successful applicants include ex-prisoners, Albanian refugees, Turkish Cypriot women, young people in rural communities and older people trying to live independently. So it looks as if this is a fund that intends to offer help at the sharp end, where smaller voluntary organisations wrestle with society's least popular and intractable problems with limited resources.
It may be that some of the groups receiving help are still quite a distance away from being able to provide the kind of public sector services on which Futurebuilders is meant to focus. In these cases, the fund is taking a long-term view - and a risk. Some might fall by the wayside, but they are being offered a chance, and the necessary funds, to get their act together - and that is what's important. This is quintessential third sector territory, where people get together to try to improve life for those who live at the margins of mainstream society, often outside the reach of normal public services.
The key to Futurebuilders' encouraging start is its relative independence.
The Home Office has set the parameters and handed the show over to a board with voluntary sector experience that has clearly decided to follow a bold and progressive agenda. The sums aren't huge, but the pattern is a good one.