Voluntary bureau tests joint working scheme

A publicly funded project is to launch next month in the East Midlands aimed at encouraging new forms of co-operation among voluntary organisations in the region.

Opportunity Knocks, which is intended to develop a "cluster group" model for charities, will begin in Leicester in May with a conference addressed by Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Representatives from small businesses, universities, banks, the TUC, funding bodies, the Home Office and recruitment agencies will also attend the conference.

It has been billed as a "participatory think-tank" which will examine barriers to voluntary sector development, such as workforce retention and weak financial management.

The cluster group approach involves building closer co-operation between organisations that share the same infrastructure, clients and skills.

Deeper links are forged, for example through collective buying agreements which enhance the productivity of the whole group, while retaining competition between them.

According to voluntary sector representative body Engage East Midlands, which has been given £31,000 by the East Midlands Development Agency to lead the two-year project, examples of successful clusters include Hollywood and the Italian fashion industry.

"Clustering builds on things that the voluntary and community sector does well - co-location and networking, for example. But it also builds on these existing relationships to achieve a deeper, more long-term collaboration," said Krista Blair, policy and research manager of Engage East Midlands. "Clusters and competition exist side-by-side in the commercial sector. Indeed, clustering can make competition healthier."

The project will evolve through the development of three groups of 'micro-clusters' in the voluntary sector. The clusters - in the Asian community, the rural East Midlands and the inner city - will work on collaboration in areas such as collective purchasing, marketing, representation, shared training and co-location.

Examples of joint working could be lobbying local authorities or primary care trusts, or buying in collective IT support.

At the end of this year, the progress of the clusters in the region will be evaluated.

"Clustering gives the smaller organisations all the benefits of being part of something bigger, while retaining their individuality," said Blair.

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