In the battle for funds, one group of charities intends to work together to save money and improve their services. Mathew Little reports.
The benign outward image of the voluntary sector belies an intense and claustrophobic competition for funds - a survival of the fittest ethos among 186,000 organisations that has earned the sector the appellation "the shark-infested puddle".
But it seems that nature's lonely hunters may be learning the new art of co-operation.
Last week, a consortium of seven children's charities, including the National Children's Bureau, Childline and I CAN, announced plans for a "radical new model for working together".
Backed by a Treasury grant of nearly half a million pounds, the group intends to combine existing services, build a "regional infrastructure" to minimise service duplication and develop new joint services to help socially excluded children and young people.
At the end of the three-year project, six of the group plan to move into a new shared office. Twenty other children's charities have expressed an interest and could join the Children's Centre project as it develops.
"It is much more than sharing a building," says Sally Whitaker, director of resources and marketing at the National Children's Bureau. "We want to develop a new culture of joint working before any of us move. Each agency will retain a separate identity. It isn't about a merger but about separate charities under the same roof working to maximise the impact of service delivery. It's a win-win situation," she says.
Whitaker sees the project as blazing a trail that other charities outside the child sector can follow. "There is no reason why the model can't be replicated. We will disseminate the lessons we learn," she says.
The fact that the funding for the Children's Centre project comes from the Treasury's Invest to Save budget, intended to encourage partnership in public services, reveals where the impetus for collaboration is coming from. The National Children's Bureau says the project is "in line with the current government agenda for the voluntary and community sector."
The Treasury, not an institution noted for needless largesse, has also earmarked a £125 million Futurebuilders fund for capital projects to help the sector prepare for an enhanced service role.
Victor Adebowale, chief executive of drugs charity Turning Point, chairs the Futurebuilders' task group examining "how organisations can work more effectively together". He believes the sector should shed its outdated predilection for "needless competition".
"I take exception to the view of the voluntary sector as a thousand flowers blooming. You end up wasting a lot of fertilizer," says Adebowale.
Charities, he argues, should put aside self-serving debates about whether more joint working leads to the danger of large organisations taking over smaller ones and "start talking about the impact on clients". "No-one has a right to exist," he says.
The onus to change the inherent tendency of the voluntary sector to rivalry rather than co-operation lies with funders, both statutory and voluntary, says Adebowale.
If they insist they will only fund joint projects rather than a myriad of individual ones, charities will soon shift their priorities because they won't have any choice.
"Competition for funds should be won by collaboration. I don't believe in funders throwing the keys in the air and seeing who dives in first," he says.
But are charities disgruntled conscripts in the state's rationalisation plans for the sector or enthusiastic participants? The evidence is mixed.
NCVO has just completed a feasibility study into the idea of a collaborative working unit to advise charities on the advantages and pitfalls of working more closely together.
There was definite support for the establishment of a unit that would provide basic information and advice and collect examples of good practice, and NCVO is now seeking funding for the unit.
Of the 42 respondents to the study, all but one had undertaken some form of collaborative working. But their experience was far from universally positive. There was considerable scepticism about the benefits of merger even from those who had gone through one successfully.
"The evidence on mergers is that under some circumstances it can be beneficial to users but that it has a lot of costs, for example in the high turnover of staff and volunteers," says Jane Hatfield, head of services at NCVO.
However, the study found that many organisations were keen to develop joint services with like-minded bodies, along the lines of the Children's Centre project.
With many organisations finding that the culture shock of merger outweighs its benefits - Help the Aged and Age Concern, and Crisis and Shelter have all walked away from merger talks in the past 18 months - the halfway house of joint services could be coming into its own.
"It could be an alternative to full blown merger," says Geraldine Peacock, chief executive of Guide Dogs. "Charities need to discover what is unique to them. If there is a distinct offering, you should focus on that and the things that go together overlap with other organisations."
Guide Dogs is working on a three-year joint project with RNID in the London borough of Redbridge under which the blindness charity does visual impairment work, while the deafness organisation covers hearing needs.
"We share offices but have not lost our identities," says Peacock. "If one charity is better at something, they should do it."