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Types of collaboration

Collaboration takes many different forms - so many we can't hope to cover them all, let alone go into each one in depth. Therefore, in these resources we've distinguished three broad types of joint working:

  1. Peer partnerships: those involving a number of broadly similar organisations in terms of their size, resources and influence;
  2. Public partnerships: those where a funder requires one or more collaborative bids per geographic/local authority area, each led by one organisation, and leaves it to the stakeholders in that area to organise themselves;
  3. Prime partnerships: those with a prime contractor, or lead agency, that hold a main service contract with the public commissioner/body, and is typically larger than its partners, and has more resources and more influence.

These resources are written primarily to address scenarios (1) and (3) above, i.e. peer and prime partnerships.


According to a Guardian blog, collaboration is 'the saviour of the voluntary sector.' That's debatable, although in health and social care, where contracts continue to increase in size, it appears to be somewhat inevitable. Charities and community groups can also gain a lot by working more closely with their peers, collaborating with businesses and public bodies - including the new range of cooperatives and mutuals that used to be part of the public sector and are often now independent social enterprises.

Smaller organisations in particular stand to learn valuable new skills by working with larger partners, and it can mean having the chance to be part of delivering a service they wouldn't be able to deliver alone. That's not to say that collaboration is easy, or that smaller organisations don't face challenges in developing partnerships. Collaboration isn't necessarily the best approach to every opportunity, but it's best to understand the advantages and disadvantages of partnership working so you can make informed decisions and go into potential partnerships as aware of what's involved as possible.

For example, one challenge faced by smaller organisations is having the confidence to ‘sell’ their achievements and successes to potential partners, who want to work with groups that have a track record of success and who can bring new or specialist skills to a collaboration. So these resources also contain a number of templates and exercises you can use to help communicate and evidence your strengths when engaging with potential partners.

What these resources can't do

Though they are designed to be as practical as possible, these resources don't attempt to answer all the questions that will arise in real partnership-working opportunities. They are a good guide to help you work with stakeholders to decide whether future opportunities are suitable for your organisation, and whether your organisation might work well with potential local partnerships. 

Issues that these resources aren't intended to address, but that you need to consider regarding potential partnerships, include:

  • TUPE - your organisation's potential liability to employ staff who are currently delivering a contract you might win;
  • VAT - your organisation's potential duty to charge VAT on a contract and account for it accordingly in your financial returns;
  • Charity law - ensuring that by collaborating to deliver a contract you still comply with your organisation's governing documents and Charity Commission regulations - for more info, see Charities and public service delivery: an introduction and overview.

Potential conflicts between commissioners and collaborators

Public bodies often stipulate the kind of collaborative working arrangements they will and won't work with. That's why it's important to provide evidence and responses to consultations in commissioning processes - because once the procurement process starts, little can be done to change it. Contributing your organisation's experience and expertise at the consultation stage is therefore crucial, because it's the main way you can influence the commissioning strategy.

Once the procurement starts, you therefore need to comply with any requirements for partnership bids or you risk being disqualified. There's no point spending lots of time building a really effective consortium with no lead body if the commissioner will only contract with a lead body. Commissioners can't force you to change the legal structure of your bid, if you don't want to, but they can refuse to contract with you, forcing you to comply or walk away. See the Frequently Asked Questions in the Introduction to Contract Law for further guidance.

Collaboration, partnerships, joint working … is it all the same thing, or not?

The language of collaboration can be complex, confusing and contradictory. Just when you're getting the hang of it, someone or something uses a term in a new way, so you need to decipher this new usage and add it to the list of multiple meanings. But don't worry - with experience, you'll begin to distinguish between the specific legal meanings of some words, and the ways they're used to mean different things in different contexts. In these resources, we've therefore tried to use the most common terms, and explain, where relevant, their other uses.

Perhaps most notably, the word “partnership” encompasses both the spirit of working together in a mutually beneficial manner to achieve a common outcome, and the legal underpinnings that clarify such a relationship. The term is often used interchangeably with collaboration, consortium, alliance, joint working, network and other phrases to mean working together in different ways. Most of the time people understand what each other means by all these terms, even if, when asked, they may give slightly different definitions of them. Similarly, consortium is a Latin word meaning “association,” “society” or “partnership” and is used for a comparable range of relationships in commissioning and contracting. A consortium can be an informal network with no legal structure or status, or it can be established as a special purpose vehicle by its members/partners. Up to a point, this loose shared understanding is perfectly adequate. However, working together typically involves formalising relationships into written agreements and contracts. At this stage, words and definitions do become significant, and can be legally binding. Legal terms used in contracts and agreements are defined and explained in more detail in the Introduction to Contract Law.

For example, a legal partnership is a very specific structure, typically used by individual professionals to create limited liability for a business, and has nothing to do with voluntary organisations or charities delivering services together (hence the common, but potentially confusing, statement in many agreements that no legal “partnership” is intended). Yet, voluntary organisations, charities and public bodies talk about partnerships all the time and mean precisely joint service delivery. So rather than try to change the way you speak, these resources use the term partnership (and collaboration and working together) in the way you're likely to be familiar with, and they also use more specific legal terms where required. This is because it's likely that the relationships you may develop through collaboration will involve some elements of imprecise values, culture and intentions, and some elements of legally binding contractual obligations. It is crucial to understand, though not always obvious, when one or the other is appropriate, and these resources will try to help you distinguish between the two.

If you have any other questions about these resources and Voscur's support for collaboration, please call 0117 909 9949 or email info@voscur.org.

Click here to view the overview diagram and see links to individual resources at the bottom of the main Collaboration Support Resources page.

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