7 ways to reduce bias in grant funding

by | Jun 8, 2022

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Grantmakers are persistent in the march towards an increasingly equitable society. We know you’re committed to challenging injustice around the globe to combat big problems like climate change, health crises, poverty and oppression—to name only a few.     

However, one of the complications for leaders, reviewers and notable decision-makers in grantmaking organisations is differing motivations and backgrounds, which can foster innate bias in decision-making. 

Consequently, grantmaking can tilt in favour of certain groups and against some others – an absolute antithesis to philanthropy’s pursuit of equity and balance.   

Everyone understands this shouldn’t be the case. Each application should be evaluated strictly on the basis of its merit and according to the grant’s standards. Because with reduced bias in grant decision-making comes more diverse perspectives, better ideas and a bigger impact in powering positive change.

The different kinds of bias in grant decision-making

Good grantmaking is human-centred. But humans are just that—human. And bias unfortunately comes along with us, whether we recognise it or not. 

There are a variety of biases that can be found in philanthropy. Let’s consider them. 

1. False consensus bias

False consensus bias takes effect when people assume their thoughts are the same as those of others. One’s beliefs naturally seem right to them, so we can erroneously project those beliefs onto others when, in reality, the others hold entirely different opinions.

In philanthropy, if leaders operate under this prejudice, other noteworthy viewpoints will be missed. The outcome? A cascade of tilted decisions.

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2. Gender bias

Gender bias, the tendency to prefer one gender over the other, plagues grantmaking. While things are gradually changing, we still live in a male-dominated society. A study of almost 6,800 grant proposals, using Gate’s rating system, revealed that women applicants were significantly 15% less likely to receive a “silver” rating and 20% less likely to receive a “gold” rating.  

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3. Conflict of interest bias

This kind of bias exists when a primary interest is influenced by a secondary interest. In the grantmaking scene, it arises when what is a reviewer’s interest might not be in the best interest of the grantmaker. 

For instance, a reviewer might choose to approve an application because they know the grantseeker. However, the funded nonprofit might not have a working structure to make proper use of the funds. The biassed decision will dent the aim of the funding organisation.  

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4. Confirmation bias

When processing information, we usually do so by searching for and interpreting information that’s consistent with our already existing beliefs. These beliefs are typically birthed by past encounters, what we’ve been taught or mere assumptions. As a result, we tend to ignore evidence that doesn’t align with our preconceived notions. 

In philanthropy, this can lead to grantmakers funding only organisations they’ve worked with previously while hesitating to work with other nonprofits that are also making a positive impact. Failure to examine the evidence about the work of other grantseekers will keep the grantors in the dark.

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5. Race, ethnicity and cultural bias

Race, ethnicity and cultural bias are prejudices that trigger unfair and less favourable reactions toward people based on their race and ethnicity. These kinds of biases are notable points of research and are prevalent in grantmaking.

For example, an analysis of the US National Institutes of Health grant success revealed that applications submitted by black or African-American principal investigators are less likely to be funded than those submitted by white principal investigators.  

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6. Affinity bias

Also known as similarity bias, this phenomenon is the likelihood of connecting with persons who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds. Affinity bias impedes diversity because one’s decisions will only favour persons who share similarities with them.

If there is a strong similarity between the decision-makers in the funding organisations and the leaders of the funded organisations, then affinity bias might be at work.  

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7. Attribution bias

Attribution bias, as a term, refers to people’s flawed thought patterns when they judge and attempt to find the reasons behind their actions and the actions of others. It’s easy to attribute our success to our diligence, resourcefulness and intelligence while blaming our failures on external factors.

When it comes to others, we tend to attribute their success to external factors but blame them for their failures. This can do a ton of damage in grantmaking, because if a funder considers the community to be responsible for its problems they might be less likely to release funds to the grantseekers. 

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8. Language bias

Language bias in grantmaking refers to the inclination to favour grant proposals and applications written well in a particular language.

Applications written well in the chosen language of communication tend to have an unconscious effect on grant reviewers.  

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7 ways to reduce bias in grant decision-making

Let’s unpack the seven different ways to reduce grantmaking bias. These steps will help ensure equity and maintain integrity in your grants program

1. Acknowledge the possibility of bias

This is the first step toward effectively combating and reducing bias in grant decision-making. Seeing yourself, your team and your process as entirely objective only serve to fan the flames of bias. It’s much easier to bury one’s head in the sand and act like the problem isn’t there, but recognising its presence and exposing it neutralises its power a great deal. 

Thus, acknowledging bias involves:

  • Educating your team about non-conscious thought processes, the subtlety of bias and how to identify it
  • Understanding the harmful effects of bias on philanthropy
  • Having uncomfortable but necessary conversations about potential areas of bias in the review team 
  • Encouraging a learning mindset and explaining how positive change can be effected

As harrowing as it might seem, this step is crucial and creates a fertile ground for equitable grant funding.  

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2. Develop a plan

Bias in grantmaking is subtle. There should be a clear-cut plan on what adjustments are to be made if grantmakers hope to reduce it. There’s a need for specific and measurable goals, without which you can’t figure out how far you’ve come. 

Examples of goals to reduce bias in grantmaking are:

  • Deciding to fund a certain number of minority-led non-profits by a certain time
  • Pledging a certain percentage of your investments to non-profits focusing on more vulnerable populations or communities
  • Including the community in grantmaking decisions; participatory grantmaking works wonders for increasing diversity, inclusion and equity in grantmaking 

A defined set of goals makes it easier for you to to track how much progress you’ve made.         

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3. Evaluate the current procedure

How you call for and deal with grant applications might be laced with favouritism and unfairness. So, to reduce bias in grantmaking and keep your organisation’s grantmaking integrity intact, it’s important to examine your blueprint to unroot any inequitable inclination.

First, ensure that your choice of words when inviting applications doesn’t come off as exclusive. If it discourages certain persons from applying, then there’s work to be done. Next, guarantee access to all potential applicants. To achieve this, you need to incorporate a mobile-friendly application system.

If an application can only be made manually or strictly with a desktop, it adversely affects the chances of many. Also, the grant application form should be accessible and easy for both grantseekers and the review team. 

Harnessing structure is another way to reduce bias in grantmaking. If decisions are made based on the whims of the review team, things could go wrong. Structure in decision-making establishes equity. With structure comes objectivity and uniformity in assessment.    

But that’s not all.   

Traditional philanthropy is beleaguered by an undue focus on formalities. To significantly reduce the bias in traditional grantmaking practices, it’s expedient to shift attention from mere protocol to the actual work that nonprofits are doing. This is the heart of trust-based philanthropy.

One way to hit this mark is to reduce the endless requirement of paperwork and specifications that grantees need to meet. 

And remember to set up an assessment process that’s not based on language, grammar or punctuation alone. Linguistic expectations only serve to fuel language bias. 

Not all applicants have English as their first language. Not all applicants have impressive writing skills. Consider offering your application submission process in the language of your grantseekers.

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4. Encourage existing, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) practices

Many grantmakers implement diversity, equity and inclusion in one way or the other. This could include creating an EDI statement and maintaining a diverse workforce.

To effectively reduce bias in grantmaking, you have to uphold the current organisational culture that supports EDI. Indeed, there might be a lot more to do to get your organisation where it needs to be. However, first, ensure what’s already there is maintained.

Here are more steps to build equity, diversity and inclusion into your grantmaking.    

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5. Leverage technology

Bias in grant decision-making is certainly a human problem. And that’s why technology can be a huge boon in bringing equity into your program. The right software automates the process and gives your reviewers ample room to attend to the submissions.

Reliable grant management software such as Good Grants can help you:

  • Identify bias
  • Allow program managers or reviewers to recuse or abstain from evaluating a submission
  • Apportion the various applications among reviewers
  • Share feedback and updates
  • Save time on the administrative work
  • Share applicant information and results within the platform
  • Automatically score applications

Since it guarantees that every member of the reviewing team gets to voice their uninfluenced opinions, technology is indispensable in the battle against bias in grant decision-making.      

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6. Revisit your reviewing methods 

Another way funders can reduce bias in their grant decision-making is by reshuffling the review process. This typically involves identifying and deleting elements of the process that might nurture bias in any shape or form.

To achieve this, the review team itself should be diverse. It should be made up of people of different backgrounds in terms of education, culture, gender, ability, race, ethnicity, society and economy. A diverse team of persons from underrepresented groups boosts the chances of equity and fairness. 

What’s more, the reviewing process should involve a team which includes the communities being served. Inclusion, transparency and collective decision-making welcome varying perspectives and keep prejudice at bay, therefore reducing assessment bias. The community leaders and members should share their thoughts on the grantmaker’s funding efforts and the programs being supported.     

The reviewing process can also be anonymous. An anonymous review process hides sensitive information about an applicant such as their name, gender, race, ethnicity and others. The absence of such details reduces any unconscious assessment bias on the side of the reviewers.

For more insight, read our guide on creating an equitable grant review process.     

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7. Collect data

As mentioned above, the essence of defining your goals to reduce grantmaking bias is that it makes it possible for you to track how much progress you’ve made.

Along with other forms of data, collecting demographic data in your grant programs help you identify whether or not you hit your aim. In the event that you don’t reach your target, find out why as well as by how much you missed and get back to the drawing board.

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It’s important to note that bias can never be permanently erased. We are human, after all. But, efforts to reduce bias and build integrity into your grantmaking can only help your impact in the long term. 

Efforts should be continually made to minimise the undesirable effects of bias. And consistently implementing these practices will not only increase your program’s integrity but also show your community how important it is to your organisation. 

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