How Grantmakers Can Reduce Bias in Decision Making

Philanthropy’s recent evolutions have in large part been spurred by the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The term has become a shorthand for the work organizations do to address the entrenched imbalances that plague the sector. Reducing bias in decision making is a big part of this DEI work. As your team decides who to fund, who to hire, and which community members to trust, you want to know that you’re not unfairly favoring or dismissing anyone. 

Of course overt prejudice is easy to identify. But implicit bias—or the unconscious stereotypes and attitudes people develop toward certain groups—is often more difficult to weed out. To help you and your team, we’ve laid out common types of bias as well as step-by-step instructions to minimize its impact on your decision making processes. Let’s dig in. 

The benefits of reducing bias

When cognitive bias distorts the decisions you make, it has a big impact on the shape of your organization. Not only does it impact who you might be open to interviewing and hiring, but in philanthropy it can dictate what causes you fund and which nonprofits you trust to do the work. Bias can hinder your ability to form meaningful connections in the community, and in the end it can hamstring your attempts to make real change. 

Working to reduce bias is good for everyone. As you implement new practices, be sure to highlight the benefits for your team. Here are a few. 

Learn how to implement anti-racist practices

Watch our webinar with Luther Hughes and Lydia Boss, Program Managers of Artist Trust.

Build a stronger team

When you limit the effect of hidden prejudice, you make room for people from diverse backgrounds. This gives you a wider knowledge base and a variety of perspectives to draw from. In fact, multiple studies have proven that diverse teams make better decisions and drive innovation.

In philanthropy, organizations are often tackling big, complex issues such as poverty or climate change. The stronger and more diverse your team, the better equipped you’ll be to create effective solutions. 

Find and support the best ideas

When we discount ideas because of the people who came up with them, we can miss out on supporting great work. Driving out bias focuses your decision making on ideas rather than identities. You can be confident that when you decide to support a solution, you’re putting resources behind the best possible approach. 

Reach new communities 

Often bias is the cognitive force that makes us stick with familiar people—whether that means hiring folks that look like us, supporting only causes that we understand, or avoiding communities we don’t feel a part of. 

Eliminating bias will help your team connect with new groups. This can broaden your reach and improve outcomes for your programs. The most successful nonprofits are built upon strong relationships centered on trust. Prejudice will only undercut your efforts to create these bonds. 

5 types of bias

Cognitive bias comes in many forms. Here are a few that may affect your organization. 

Affinity bias

Affinity bias is favoring people you feel a connection to. This can lead to showing preference for folks who look like you, talk like you, or have a similar background. And of course, in turn, this means leaving out the people who don’t. 

In philanthropy, affinity bias can be particularly pernicious. Charity and foundation boards are overwhelmingly white. And one recent report found that 75% of nonprofit executive directors identified as white. This imbalance can skew who gets support from these nonprofits. 

Currently, POC-led nonprofits receive less funding and often have more strings attached to the money they get. This is affinity bias in action. 

To identify affinity bias, think about your organization and whether you can see a strong correlation between who is making the decisions and who is benefitting from them. 

Confirmation bias

We all have preconceived notions about others. They may be informed by past encounters we’ve had, by images we’ve seen in the media, or by how little we’ve interacted with people from certain groups. 

Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on information that aligns with your preconceived notions. Basically, it means projecting your existing beliefs—whether or not they’re accurate—onto new situations.

This can lead nonprofits to prioritize funding the organizations they’ve worked with in the past and dissuade them from investing in new and emergent efforts. It can also create some big blind spots. If your team is always filtering information to support existing assumptions, it will be difficult to develop fresh perspectives. 

For example, author and activist Edgar Villanueva explains in a New York Times article that he often spends the first 20 minutes of a 30-minute meeting educating funders about the Native American community. This lack of awareness has led to a big discrepancy in how resources are divided—Native Americans receive only 0.4% of philanthropic dollars despite making up 2% of the population.  

Attribution bias

When it comes to one’s own personal success, many people have the tendency to believe that merit and personality play the biggest factors. Maybe they consider themselves hardworking, intelligent, and driven, and when they get a promotion they attribute it to these traits. On the other hand, when they fail, they blame external factors. Something or someone else prevented them from achieving their goals. 

However when it comes to understanding other people, this equation often gets reversed. Successes are credited to outside forces and failures are rooted in personality. This is attribution bias. 

In philanthropy, when nonprofits are trying to create meaningful change, attribution bias can be quite harmful. If a grantmaker ascribes a community’s struggles to personal faults of its members without considering systemic failures, they won’t be able to address the root causes of the problems they want to solve. 

False consensus bias

It’s easy to convince yourself that what you think is the same as what others think. This assumption that people agree with you  is false consensus bias. Our beliefs are often rooted in valid experiences and shaped by a logic that makes sense to us. Sometimes we wrongly project those beliefs onto others.  

For grantmakers, these assumptions can stifle dialogue and collaboration. For example, if an organization leader assumes that other folks have the same priorities as they do, they might miss an opportunity to hear different and equally valid perspectives. 

Right now, there is a lot of work happening to dismantle the power imbalances between donors and funders. However, there is still a long way to go. When the people in charge assume incorrectly that others agree with them, it can be quite difficult for folks to speak up and correct them. Shedding this assumption allows for more voices to be heard. 

Halo/horns effect

Sometimes our perception of someone or something can be heavily shaped by one trait—whether good or bad. In turn other things we learn about them are colored by this initial data point and skew our perception. This can create a halo or horns effect. 

For example, if someone who applies for a job you’ve posted has a personal recommendation from a trusted friend of yours, that might cause you to overlook red flags you might identify with other candidates. On the flip side, believing someone is too inexperienced might make you dismiss their good ideas. 

The key to avoiding the halo/horns effect is being mindful if some piece of information elicits an emotional reaction and sways you too extremely to a particularly rosy or grim assessment of an individual or an organization. 

8 steps to minimize bias

1. Acknowledge it exists

It might feel like the elephant in the room, but the only way to root out bias is to name it. Be vocal with your team about the damage prejudice can cause and how much can be gained by diminishing it. You can start by looking at its impact on the philanthropic sector, including the funding disparities shaped by racial bias. 

Unconscious bias training is a great investment, giving folks space for dialogue and the tools they need to make change. You can also use resources like Project Implicit, which uses short quizzes to help identify preferences around skin tone, race, religion, and other factors. 

Though the conversations might be difficult, bringing this issue into the light is the first step toward minimizing its effect.

2. Set intentions

Learning and talking about bias won’t mean much if you don’t develop a strategy to address it. Take a look at your team, your processes, and your impact to determine how bias has an effect on your work. Then set intentions to make change. 

Perhaps your focus will be on recruiting a more diverse group of candidates for jobs or investing in employees who may take on leadership roles in the future. Or maybe it’s about the work you do in the community—which groups you fund and who they serve. 

What’s important is setting specific, measurable goals around reducing bias. For example, the Kresge Foundation has made a pledge that by 2025, 25 percent of its U.S. assets under management will be invested in female and diverse-owned firms. Rather than a vague intention, they’ve created a clear vision, and they’ll know if they don’t achieve it. 

As you narrow your focus, pick out one or two metrics that will tell you if you’re making progress toward your DEI goals. This will help motivate your team and will allow you to track your results.

Submittable’s Advanced Reporting tool can help you measure progress toward your goals, such as this analysis of funding requests by different racial communities. 

3. Consider your processes

As a grantmaker, you’ve got processes in place to invite and manage applications. Some of these procedures might have bias baked in. Take time to look at your operations through an anti-bias lens. Are there components of your application you can tweak or eliminate to be more inclusive?

Make your application process more inclusive

Watch our webinar to learn the strategies and best practices to center equity.

For example, do you use language in your application that might discourage certain groups from applying? Are you overly academic and jargony? This might deter applicants with less formal education or those who don’t speak English as a first language.

Are your forms accessible for everyone? Can you access and complete the full application from a mobile device or do you need to have a computer with an internet connection? These procedural details can make a big difference in who can access these opportunities.

As this grantee survey demonstrates, Submittable is completely mobile-friendly. 

It’s also worth thinking about how you find applicants. Do you rely on word of mouth? Or do you tend to stick to your existing networks? As Edgar Villanueva explained in his book Decolonizing Wealth, “A lot of foundations are lazy, funding the usual suspects, which most often are white-led organizations adept at creating glossy promotional materials and/or whose leaders have extensive Rolodexes that grant them more access to funders.” 

4. Use structure

If your team is making decisions based on gut feel or casual conversations, it’s easy for bias to sneak its way into the process undetected. Uniformity in how you make assessments—whether of job candidates or grantees—will help you achieve equity. 

Use structured interviews and create standardized questions. You don’t need to create long, complex applications. They can be simple and straightforward. You just want to ensure you’re comparing apples to apples. 

Acknowledge bias inherent in these processes. For example, likability can be a factor. Of course, likability itself is incredibly subjective. But rather than trying to ignore it or treat it like some enigmatic force, consider giving it a score. That way you can take it into consideration without giving it too much weight. You can also see if you’re consistently scoring in a biased way. 

Anonymous review can be a useful tool. This limits application reviewers from seeing non-essential information like geographical location or ethnic background. Removing the data that might skew assessments is a good way to reduce the opportunity for bias. 

Concealing applicant responses is one way Submittable clients reduce reviewer bias. 

5. Focus on function over presentation

Professionalism is often rooted in the dominant culture. As you make decisions, center the work people are doing over how they present it. Are they making change? Are they achieving the outcomes that matter? These are much more important than whether they can package their story into a compelling narrative. 

Be sure not to overvalue things like grammar and punctuation. For example, Artist Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting artists in Washington state, tells their application reviewers to focus more on the art itself rather than the written piece. “We also explicitly tell our panelists don’t judge applications based off of writing or grammar because, you know—writing is a skill and not everybody has that skill to be a professional or a fantastic writer,” program manager Luther Hughes explains. 

As you look at how your team makes decisions, think about how to scale back emphasis on presentation and focus on the work that’s truly making a difference. For instance, you could provide options for applicants to submit statements in writing or in a video or audio file. 

In Submittable, you can choose to accept 60 different file types. 

6. Make reviewing a collective effort

Don’t rely on just one person to make hiring or funding decisions. Including a variety of perspectives in the review process can help counter the bias each individual brings to the table. Make an effort to create an inclusive review panel

As you make decisions about programs and funding efforts, find ways to include the community. Invite community members and leaders to give feedback and be a part of the review process. Having these perspectives from outside your organization will not only help counter bias, but it will go a long way in building relationships. 

Find tools to prevent one voice from dominating the discussion. Some teams have found that it’s easier to review applications on a platform rather than in person. This allows all voices to be heard with equal weight, preventing the review process from being monopolized by the loudest person in the room. Plus it can help avoid the bandwagon effect—the group dynamics which can sometimes sway people’s opinions. 

7. Support the diversity already in the room

It’s going to be mighty difficult to strip bias from your team’s decision making processes if your company culture is steeped in prejudice. Does everyone feel like they can bring their full selves to work? Or do some employees feel pressured to assimilate? 

Organizations that recruit a diverse team but don’t work to shift their company culture will have trouble making lasting change. Interviews with leaders of color in philanthropy reveal that they often feel isolated, are required to have more credentials than their white peers, and have to prove themselves again and again to earn trust. 

Looking outward is great, but don’t forget to support the people already in the room. Find ways to empower your team so they are able to advocate, grow, and make change. Be sure everyone feels like they have the opportunity to work toward leadership roles. Creating a true sea change when it comes to bias and diversity, means keeping good leaders of color in the nonprofit sector

Don’t forget to stay open to feedback. If some members of your team aren’t feeling heard, make an effort to listen, even if what they share is difficult to hear. Building a culture of honesty and trust starts with open communication. 

8. Gather and analyze data

If you’ve set goals around eliminating bias, now is the time to see how you measure up. You want to know how your initiatives have made an impact in eliminating bias and improving DEI across your organization’s work. 

Are you interviewing and hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds? Are you supporting more organizations led by minorities? Are you reaching underserved communities? Taking stock of this data will help you know if your efforts are making a difference. Be sure to focus on the metrics that matter

Measurement is no one-and-done deal. This effort needs to be ongoing to ensure that practices you’ve put in place continue to be effective. Sometimes a program doesn’t have the effect we expected and needs to be reimagined.

Use your research to retool your approach and try new things. Remember that this work is dynamic and constantly evolving. Even if one program works at first, it will likely need to change with time. Just think about how dated the conversations around race, gender, and sexual orientation from just a few years ago feel now. The last thing you want is to make great progress and then get stuck. Stay engaged with this work and keep the conversations going. 

Submittable’s Impact Reports help you understand the micro and macro impact of your granting program.

Find the right tools to support your equity work

Addressing bias in your decision making takes effort. You want to leverage the tools that will make the work easier for you and your team. 

Submittable is a social impact platform used by thousands of grantmakers. With features that support equity and tools to collect and analyze data, it’s a great solution for organizations that want to streamline their processes and root out prejudice. Learn more.

Laura Steele

Laura Steele is a content writer and editor at Submittable. She also writes fiction and nonfiction. You can read some of her stories and essays at laurapricesteele.com.

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