Published on November 27th, 2013 | by Kimberley Scharf


Engaging with the Third Sector: An Academic’s Perspective

Earlier this week, my interview with appeared on their blog (see How behavioural economics can help your charity: a Q&A with Kimberley Scharf).

I was really pleased to be asked to do the Q&A with JustGiving, especially as it is so important for the academic community to more fully interact with government, charities and businesses like A longstanding philosophy about my own research is that I want it to be motivated by issues and concerns in the real world — whether these be concerns of policymakers or practitioners or businesses that need to design incentive mechanisms that can deliver the best performance for themselves and the most `bang for the dollar’ for the consumer.
As great as all of this sounds, there is something of a disconnect between the predictions generated by economic analytical frameworks of the non-profit sector, its data collection efforts and its practise and beliefs, which makes it hard to test our predictions. This in turn makes it hard for the sector to see that the academic community is useful, which widens the gaps between ourselves and so on. But our economic frameworks are important since the predictions that they generate, if empirically meaningful, can ultimately be used as a guide for public policy and for pointing to ways of delivering a healthy and efficient third sector.

I do speak about this from first-hand knowledge. A little while ago, I put the disconnect to the test by inviting myself to a well-known London philanthropic think-tank to present some of my own (raw and un-distilled) academic research to the think-tank’s non-academic researchers, and to ask them if they had evidence to offer that I could use to support my theoretical conjectures (even anecdotal). The meeting was useful in that regard, although it became apparent that there is a chasm between my needs as an applied theoretical academic economist and the data/evidence that the third sector collects. BUT something else happened: we had a really great and energetic debate about the (controversial for the third sector) ideas in my research and we all left feeling that we had learned something new and that perhaps we could think about more comprehensive ways of merging analytical frameworks with data collection efforts.

This interaction showed me first hand that there are bilateral benefits stemming from a mind merge of academics and practitioners — for the sector (charities and businesses) and for the economists working on developing related frameworks. And these benefits are in spite of the fact that there might be controversial ideas presented to one side or the other. During my own interaction, everyone seemed to recognise that a good debate is a good catalyst for generating ideas. So I think there is great value in bringing together academics and researchers from the third sector to engage in frank and open debate even when this does not immediately produce the results that each side was initially hoping for — data for economists, practically useable results for the sector.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to find out more about these ‘controversial for the third sector’ ideas in my research, do take a look at some of my recent papers and let me know what you think:

Horstmann, Ignatius, & Kimberley Scharf (2008). A Theory of Distributional Conflict, Voluntarism and Segregation. The Economic Journal 118.527: pages 427-453.

Horstmann, Ignatius, Kimberley Scharf, & Al Slivinski, (2007). Can Private Giving Promote Economic Segregation?. Journal of Public Economics 91.5: pages 1095-1118.

Scharf, Kimberley, (forthcoming 2014). Private Provision of Public Goods and Information Diffusion in Social Groups. International Economic Review. (Working Paper version)

Scharf, Kimberley, (forthcoming 2014). Impure Pro-Social Motivation in Charity Provision: Warm Glow Charities and Implications for Public Funding. Journal of Public Economics.



Kim Scharf is Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick; she works closely on projects with WMG's Service Systems Research Group. Kim is a theoretical and applied public finance economist who has a longstanding interest in issues that concern public policy, the economics of information, social networks, public goods, charity and property rights.

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