In partnership with:

NCVO, ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation logo's

The commissioning and procurement environment is competitive and frequently does not reward or facilitate meaningful collaboration. Yet when larger and smaller charities work together in partnership, they can offer and deliver significantly greater impact for the people and communities they serve than by acting alone. But partnership working is rarely easy. The Rebalancing the Relationship project began two years ago with an aim of contributing to the improvement, frequency, effectiveness, and spirit of partnerships between larger and smaller charities and social enterprises.

It is important to recognise at the outset of this report that commissioning processes and systems are often flawed and that we will continue to work alongside sector colleagues to change that. A more enabling commissioning environment will help charities achieve greater impact for the people, communities and causes they serve.

However, there are things within the current operating environment that we can control as leaders, and that we can make better for our colleagues in the sector, but more importantly for the communities we serve. There are many voluntary sector organisations that have already put in place changes to how they operate, and this report provides insight, advice and guidance for others also seeking to make positive changes.

Elements of this report may be uncomfortable to read. But this report is not about singling out a particular organisation or type of charity, nor is it about assigning blame. It is about better understanding the power imbalances inherent in collaboration and competition, demonstrating accountability where we haven’t got it right in the past, and creating a stronger voluntary sector ecosystem.

A strong voluntary sector ecosystem requires individual organisations to not only recognise and value their strengths, but to recognise and value the strengths of others. Larger organisations often have more financial resources and a brand recognition that can open doors. Smaller organisations can be more nimble and can often move more quickly. Recognising the role and value in these different characteristics will reduce the risk of negative power imbalances, and create stronger services for communities. Our shared vision is of a sector that works together more effectively, ensuring that people get the support they need and want from charities.

During the covid-19 pandemic we have seen collaboration and partnership become the default way of working. Voluntary sector organisations of all sizes collaborated quickly, willingly and effectively to get people the help they need. This has aided in the engagement of millions of volunteers, has enabled charities to respond quickly to changing community needs and has created a stronger, more unified ‘sector’ voice for influencing central government. As we build back better, we must remember, and build on the things that have been done better in 2020. This will be especially important if charities are to address the widening inequalities exposed during the pandemic.

But building back better isn’t something we can just ask others to do. It is something we must do ourselves. There is opportunity now to permanently disrupt business as usual and retain the spirit of partnership that came to the fore during the pandemic. However, we cannot just skip ahead to ‘better’. We must first understand why things have previously gone wrong and acknowledge our mistakes. We can then focus on changing our behaviours and attitudes to partnership and building back better together, including by collectively tackling broken commissioning practices. We hope that this report can be part of that process.

We want to thank the steering group, advisory group and all those who contributed to this research. We hope that we have reflected the full depth of your experiences and expertise. We look forward to hearing reflections on it and to working with charities and leaders across the sector to together take forward its recommendations.

Sarah Vibert's signature

Sarah Vibert

Vicky Browning's signature

Vicky Browning


This report has been the result of a partnership between NCVO, ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales. We would like to thank colleagues across the partner organisations for their support in developing this report, particularly Maisie Hulbert, Kristiana Wrixon, Caroline Howe, and Rachel Cain. We would like to thank Lloyds Bank Foundation for the funding that has enabled us to carry out this work.

We are grateful for everyone who has taken the time and effort to participate in this project by sending us evidence, attending events, or offering case studies and taking part in interviews. We would especially like to thank members of the steering and advisory groups for their advice and feedback since the start of the project. Members of the steering group included Paul Streets (Lloyds Bank Foundation), Polly Neate (Shelter), Laura Bunt (We Are With You), Jake Ferguson (Hackney CVS), Priya Chopra (Saheli), Elaine Handley (Derbyshire Alcohol Advice Service), Julian Blake (Stone King) and Sue Bott (formerly of Disability Rights UK). It was chaired by Karl Wilding (NCVO) and Kate Welch (Social Enterprise Acumen, and former trustee of ACEVO).

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 14 September 2022