Third sector partnerships for service delivery

Research Report 88  - October 2012

This research project aimed to gain a greater understanding of third sector partnership working – both within and between sectors – which has been particularly crucial to the delivery of a wide range of public services. The research is based on five case studies of organisations involved in public service delivery in different policy fields, including housing, welfare, and employment services. These were preceded by a period of scoping research with national interviewees. The case studies were very diverse, and this paper synthesises the main findings across the cases in four logical sections: meanings of partnership; structures, drivers and barriers; processes and organisational change, and impacts of partnership. Some of the individual case studies are also available from links in the right hand column.

Despite some very different experiences, the research analysis raises common themes and question, including the complexity of partnership working, the importance of trust based relationships, the exclusion of user voice in setting objectives, and a lack of evidence around outcomes.

The case studies also begin to challenge some assumptions underlying the scaling up of third sector organisations to take a wider role in public service delivery. In particular the limits in scope for economies of scale in transactional and personal services where individual relationships are more important than systems in delivering outcomes for users.

The report offers key messages for policy and practice, including avoiding mandated partnerships, valuing economies of scope as well as scale, and focusing on outcomes for service users.

This research report builds on the extensive literature review reported in Working Paper 60.

Research contacts

James Rees, David Mullins and Tony Bovaird 


The Third Sector Research Centre has been conducting research on Third Sector Partnerships for Service Delivery. The collaborative agenda has emerged in the context of the changing role of the state. Due in part to a perception in the 1990s of crisis in the UK public sector, the authority of state bureaucracies has been increasingly decentralised, through contracting out to the private and voluntary sector and to arms-length public agencies. Consequently, the third sector is now a major force in public service delivery. It works in partnership with public sector commissioners and with providers in the public sector, private sector and rest of the third sector.

There is, therefore, a need to develop a better understanding and a critical assessment of how partnerships and collaborative relationships actually work, what they offer to service commissioners, and what implications they have for the future of the third sector. 

Key themes which will be explored in this project include:

  • Long-term partnership working between third sector organisations (TSOs) with public  and private sector organisations
  • Partnerships, strategic alliances and mergers  within the third sector
  • Innovation and learning from partnership working, including lessons from international experience

In addition, the research is providing insights into other research issues being explored in Service Delivery. These include the role of the third sector in service commissioning, governance issues arising from third sector involvement in public services partnerships, and the role of the third sector in enabling user and community co-production of public services.

Research questions include:

  • What are the different types of inter-organisational collaborative relationships involving TSOs?
  • What are the main drivers of collaboration and partnership involving TSOs?
  • How is partnership building affected by the policy environment?
  • What are the impacts of different types of third sector partnerships on service outcomes and the quality of service experienced by users?
  • What are the impacts of different types of third sector partnerships on organisational efficiency and service costs?
  • What are the relative advantages of TSOs forming collaborations and partnerships with each other, compared with merging, as ways of improving service outcomes, quality of service, efficiency and cost?
  • To what extent has service innovation and inter-organisational learning been enhanced by TSO contributions to collaborative and  partnership working, and by merger between TSOs?

Read full project brief  from March 2010: Third Sector Partnerships for Service Delivery (PDF, 360KB) 

Case studies

See also: