An arm's length body to run libraries, leisure centres and swimming pools has been proposed by Highland Council.
The authority's education, culture and sport committee has voted in favour of advancing the plan.
Officials estimate setting up a charitable trust would save the council about £700,000 a year and could prevent the closure of some sites.
But unions warned pay and conditions of almost 500 staff could be affected if they transferred to the new body.
SNP councillors on the committee voted against the proposal.
Committee chairman Bill Fernie said the decision taken by members was to explore the proposal at this stage.
He said: "People don't want to lose their local community learning and leisure services - but the council still has to find major savings in its budgets over the coming years.
"No decision has been taken today to move to an arms length organisation.
"The principle of setting up such an organisation will be explored and we will consider the details over the coming months as one of the options mitigating the budgetary pressures facing us."