Members of the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Service have narrowly rejected a radical proposal by its leadership that would have opened membership to thousands of other infrastructure organisations.
Kevin Curley, chief executive of NACVS, described the issue as "the most important debate since NACVS was formed", and warned delegates at last week's annual general meeting of grave consequences if they resisted change.
But although 67 per cent voted for the motion, it required 75 per cent support. Had two more delegates voted for it instead of against, the motion would have been carried.
Those opposed to the change, such as Robert Arnold, director of Voluntary Action Manchester, were concerned it could let "lower-quality infrastructure groups" into the NACVS fold.
"It is disappointing," said Curley, who did not rule out trying again next year. "The danger to local organisations is that they will find themselves in competition with national charities, the private sector and universities with very entrepreneurial approaches for the money that's available to support the voluntary and community sector."
Infrastructure organisations have mushroomed in number over the past 10 years. Although some want to join NACVS, which has 350 members, few meet the membership criteria.
Curley estimated that 150 community partnerships, learning and skills consortia and black-led skills organisations would join over the next three years if the rules changed, and said the figure could multiply many times over the long term. In Manchester alone, there are 140 infrastructure organisations.
"We will be better placed to win contracts if local organisations work together and come together with one voice," he told delegates in Telford, Shropshire.
"Let NACVS welcome them warmly."
Curley said organisations that did not adhere to the values of NACVS, which include local ownership and collaboration, would not be admitted.
The Scarman Trust and Groundwork were among those that did not meet the criterion, he said.
Moira Cunningham, direc-tor of Tameside Third Sector Coalition, said the leadership was detached from local views. "The CVS brand is something valuable," she said. "Let's not throw it away."
After the vote, Mike Eastwood, chairman of NACVS, said there was a danger that the body could be perceived as a defensive and insular protectionist club.