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Joint working agreements explained

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NCVO members can download a joint working agreement checklist, which guides you through the questions you should ask and the areas you should cover.

What are the different types of joint working agreement?

An agreement for collaborative working may be known as a:

  • collaborative working, joint working or partnership agreement (or protocol)
  • memorandum of understanding (MoU)
  • service level agreement (SLA)
  • contract
  • joint venture agreement.

SLAs often commit organisations to targets or quality standards, while MoUs are often used for more informal relationships. However, you may hear these terms used interchangeably.

Legal partnerships

Some of these arrangements will create enforceable rights and obligations, while others won’t.

In particular, beware of the word partnership, as it has a specific legal meaning with legal implications.

A legal partnership is always created when two or more people work together to make a surplus.

In a legal partnership, the partners are jointly and severally liable for all the partnership’s debts and liabilities. A creditor can sue the more affluent partner, recover its claim and leave that partner to recover the appropriate share of the debt from the other partner (or partners).

If you plan to establish a legal partnership, consider using a limited liability partnership (LLP).

On this page, we don’t use the word partnership in its legal sense.

Why have a joint working agreement?

Trust is an important part of relationships between organisations. However, even with trust, a written agreement can help you avoid misunderstandings.

An agreement is a common reference point that guides the collaboration through daily routine and times of confusion. If staff or trustees change, the agreement is a record of expectations that can maintain understanding between partners.

It’s good practice to define roles and responsibilities, and the boundaries that separate your joint work from the day-to-day operations of each partner. Discussing what goes into the agreement is a good way for partners to build their relationship and develop ‘ownership’ of collaborative work.

Your agreement could also be used to explain to funders or commissioners how collaboration works.

How formal should your joint working agreement be?

Identify and assess the risks involved before starting to working collaboratively. Trustees are responsible for making sure that this is done at a suitable level for the nature and scale of the proposed collaboration.

The scope of your joint working agreement should be proportionate to the level of risk in your collaboration and the resources you’ve invested in it. The greater the risk, the more formal your agreement needs to be. Your trustees have final responsibility for this decision.

Is a joint working agreement legally necessary?

Verbal agreements may have legal standing if challenged, but written agreements are more reliable.

If you intend for your agreement to be legally binding, then it is – and it will almost certainly be subject to contract law.

Organisations must decide together at the start of their partnership whether they want an agreement to be legally binding, so it’s a good idea to get legal advice at this point. Partners should understand the extent of the commitments they’re making in a legally binding agreement.

How do you produce a joint working agreement?

It’s best for partners to create the agreement together. This process is just as important as the finished document because it gives partners the chance to get to know each other’s ways of working and to discuss all the areas that will be recorded.

Decide the following.

  • Who’ll be involved in drawing up the agreement.
  • How you’ll draw up the agreement. Face-to-face meetings are best as they allow frank discussion. Draft text should be circulated around all partners.
  • Whether to use a facilitator who’s not involved in the collaboration.
  • If you need to take professional advice. Whether you want legal or financial guidance, choose a neutral adviser who is familiar with the voluntary sector and who has been agreed by all partners. You may also want to seek your own advice as an individual organisation.

Once you’ve finalised and agreed the text, the document should be formally accepted by a representative of each partner. This is usually the senior staff member responsible for overseeing the joint work, such as a chief executive, or the chair (or another trustee) from each organisation.

This can be done by:

  • signing the agreement
  • exchanging letters or emails that confirm the agreement
  • signalling acceptance of the agreement in the minutes of a meeting.

Each partner should have a copy of the final agreement and any updated versions that follow.

How can you use your agreement?

Use your agreement as a reference tool. It can help you review how well the collaboration is working. This way, staff will be more likely to think about how they’re working collaboratively in all aspects of their joint work.

Decide the following.

  • Which new staff need to be given a copy as part of their induction.
  • Who you need to publicise the agreement to. Circulating it beyond the staff who are directly involved in the joint work can help all staff talk about the work to external audiences.

The agreement should be a living document. Set dates to assess how well it reflects the way that partners want to work together and how well the relationship is going.

Any changes to the agreement should be discussed and agreed using the same process you went through when you created the original document.

Last reviewed: 28 February 2018

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 28 February 2018

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