Keep it legal: Public service delivery partners

The Charity Commission recently highlighted a number of barriers that prevent small and medium-sized third sector organisations from entering the public service arena.

In her address to NCVO's annual conference this year, DameSuzi Leather, chair of the commission, discussed the option of bidding for contracts and funding in collaborative partnerships (Third Sector, 21 February). Such measures would accommodate the preference that public sector organisations have for selecting one large service provider rather than dealing with several smaller charities that essentially provide the same services.

There are obvious advantages to working with other like-minded organisations - knowledge, risk and costs can be shared, resulting in beneficiaries receiving improved services. Nonetheless, a successful collaboration requires careful thought. Trust and communication between members of a consortium are most easily achieved when there is a synergy between personalities, working methods and cultural values, so it is important to consider potential partners with great care.

Charities should ensure that their constitutions allow trustees to collaborate. If this is not the case, charities might need to change the terms of their governing documents or apply to the commission for consent. Each charity's objects must be served by the collaboration, so the joint goals of the consortium, and how they further each party's stated aims, must be clear.

Public sector organisations have strict procurement requirements, and loose arrangements between service providers might not satisfy these. A public sector body will require confirmation of the arrangements between members of a consortium, so a written agreement between members will be necessary, and this needs to be in place before any bid for funding or contracts is made.

The commission recommends that charities carry out risk assessments and use the results to decide how comprehensive the agreements should be. Documents should then set out the responsibilities of each party involved and the division of liability, together with procedures for ending arrangements and for resolving any disputes.

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