Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to offer a critical overview of claims and counter claims around increased expectations that the third sector organisations (TSOs) will compete for contracts to deliver public services. It does this through the lens of contested notions of being “businesslike” and “entrepreneurial” across the public and third sectors. Then it assesses how some of these tensions are currently played out between public sector commissioners and third sector service providers.Design/methodology/approach – This paper is based on a one‐year project funded under the ESRC Business Engagement Opportunities scheme (2009‐2010) in which the authors are working with NHS Manchester (responsible for commissioning and directing NHS funds into a wide range of services for communities across the city) and local third sector delivery and infrastructure organisations. The project consists of a set of knowledge exchange activities (scoping, workshops, placements and an on‐line tool) intended to help NHS Manchester reshape its local provider profile through market making and commissioning new service contracts from TSOs, especially social enterprises. Preliminary findings are reported from the review of academic and policy literature that formed the scoping stage of this project.Findings – Public sector commissioners and TSOs often struggle to make sense of each others' world views and working assumptions. This cannot be easily overcome but ways of improving dialogue are proposed through exploration of third sector outcomes and entrepreneurial language, practices and mindsets.Originality/value – This paper offers a new, grounded reflection on the nexus of public sector contracts, entrepreneurship and third sector values.