Boundary Spanning: a Third Sector Perspective
Winchester, Nik; Vangen, Siv; Jarvis, Carol (2013)

Carol Jacklin Jarvis, Siv Vangen, Nik Winchester, Open University Business School


This paper draws on qualitative research based on interviews with and observation of third sector leaders who work collaboratively with public agencies, in the children’s services context, at a time of continuing policy change and financial instability. It explores the challenges of leading in this context, asking how participants practice and make sense of their experiences of boundary spanning (Williams, 2002, Williams, 2013), in an uncertain environment where control frequently appears to be entirely with public agencies.

Drawing on research which highlights the paradoxical nature of inter-organisational collaboration (Clarke-Hill et al., 2003, Huxham and Vangen, 2005, Provan and Kenis, 2008), and the consequent experience of tensions in leadership practice (Williams, 2013, Bingham et al., 2006), we explore how such tensions impact on third sector leaders. We highlight three areas of tension for third sector practitioners:

  • The agency tension focuses on the individual’s sense of their ability to make a difference in contexts dominated by policy and public sector processes;
  • The values tension focuses on commitment to values associated with a distinctive third sector identity (Macmillan, 2013), but acceptance of more pragmatic practice;
  • The incorporation tension focuses on maintaining ‘voice’ (Hirschman, 1970), whilst working within a cross-sector relationship which is continually re-framed by policy.

We argue that experiences of tension relate to underlying tensions which are inherent in inter-organisational collaboration, including the need for both unity and diversity (Huxham and Vangen, 2005, Ospina and Saz-Carranza, 2010), and explore the strategies which third sector leaders adopt to manage these tensions, and ‘make things happen’ (Vangen and Huxham, 2003).


Bingham, L., Blomgren & O’Leary, R. (2006) ‘Conclusion: parallel play, not collaboration: missing questions, missing connections’, Public Administration Review, vol. Special Issue, 161-167.

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Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, voice and loyalty, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Huxham, C. & Vangen, S. (2005). Managing to collaborate: the theory and practice of collaborative advantage. London, Routledge.

Macmillan, R. (2013) ”Distinction’ in the third sector’, Voluntary Sector Review, vol.4, no.1, pp.39-54.

Ospina, S. M. & Saz-Carranza, A. (2010) ‘Paradox and collaboration in network management’, Administration and Society vol.42, no.4, pp.404-440.

Provan, K. G. & Kenis, P. (2008) ‘Modes of network governance: structure, management, and effectiveness’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, vol.18, no.2, pp.229-252.

Vangen, S. & Huxham, C. (2003) ‘Enacting leadership for collaborative advantage: dilemmas of ideology and pragmatism in the activities of partnership managers’, British Journal of Management, vol.14, S61-S76.

Williams, P. (2002) ‘The competent boundary spanner’, Public Administration vol.80, no.1, pp.103-24.

Williams, P. (2013) ‘We are all boundary spanners now?’, International Journal of Public Sector Management, vol.26, no.1, pp.17-32.Biography

Carol Jacklin Jarvis worked in the third and public sectors, largely in children’s services, for over 20 years, before returning to the world of academia to explore cross-sector collaboration. As a strategy manager in three different local authorities, she implemented childcare policy, including the roll out of Sure Start children’s centres, and commissioned family support services. In each of these roles, she worked closely with colleagues from the third sector, a sector she had previously experienced as a partnership officer and director of Councils for Voluntary Service. Carol is now a PhD student at the Open University, where her work is supervised by Siv Vangen and Nik Winchester.

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