The Tactical Guide to Reducing Bias in Your Grant Application Review Process

Here’s the thing with bias in philanthropy.

In the long run, it’s just not good for anyone.

Bias reduces the quality of our collective work in the grants field. It misallocates resources based on false assumptions about certain communities. Bias results in deeply inefficient practices in the workplace.

What would minimizing or even eliminating bias look like for grantmakers?

Understanding the various aspects of bias and learning how to overcome it with strategic decision-making will help grantmakers run the best possible review process.

First, grantmakers must learn to understand and identify bias

First, grantmakers must learn to understand and identify bias

When you’re swimming in the same water all the time, it’s hard to identify the impurities.

That’s the big picture challenge many grantmakers face when it comes to finding and rooting out bias in their grant review process.

From affiliation bias and conflicts of interest to biases based on gender and race, there are lots of prejudices to address while building a review process that’s fair and equitable. Many biases are unconscious and hard to tackle, but minimizing their impact is not impossible.

Beyond these broad categories of bias, grantmakers should also take a closer look at how specific instances of bias can manifest in the grant review process. Let’s take a look at how various forms of bias that show up during the grant review phase can potentially signal implicit and institutional bias.

Language bias

Although clear communication is an important part of any grant application, mistakes in grammar and syntax shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Heavy emphasis on such errors places a big burden on applicants for whom English is not a native language or those who did not attend elite institutions with writing support services.

Social network bias

“It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know” is a worn-out refrain. The deck is often stacked against applicants who lack social capital and connections to individuals with the power to influence grantmaking decisions. Instead of tipping the scales towards the well-connected, grantmakers should be working to insulate the grant review process from this kind of favoritism.

Diversity bias

There should be a significantly diverse representation on both sides of the review process—among the submitters and the reviewers. When specific groups are not represented equitably (especially when applicants focus on communities with which reviewers are unfamiliar), the quality of grant review suffers greatly. Like the “jury of their peers” standard in law, it’s important to be reviewed by those with similar experiences when you’re being judged.

Prestige bias

Reviewers (and the proposals they review) do not exist in a vacuum. Many reviewers get intimidated by the rank and track record of success boasted by more prominent individuals submitting proposals. This leads to a doubling down on submitters who have already experienced success in receiving grant funding without due consideration for their actual proposals. In other words, proposals should be evaluated on their own strengths and weaknesses rather than unfounded assumptions about prestige.

Innovation and pilot bias

This is a tricky one. Some funders want to see pilot data before they’ll fund a grant proposal. However, not every organization has access to resources that support the collection of pilot data. Relatedly, some funders love to support sexy, innovative projects by “rockstar” applicants rather than proposals by dedicated local leaders with a less notable but still proven track record of success.

Funders shouldn’t bypass big problems that have more straightforward solutions, nor should they assume that innovative proposals can always be pre-tested.

For grantmakers, accounting for all of these sometimes competing considerations isn’t easy. Striving to do so, though, is worth a shot if the goal is an equitable grant review process.

How to reduce bias: Advice for grantmakers

How to reduce bias: Advice for grantmakers

Despite the many forms of bias, there’s still reason to hope and work towards bias-free grantmaking.

Grantmakers are more readily recognizing and reducing bias in their grant review processes.

Many grantmakers have fundamentally reshaped the very nature of their application process in order to proactively eliminate bias from the outset. This includes reducing grant applications to two pages with an intense focus on the core idea of a proposal.

Many grantmakers are also ensuring they have diverse review panels in place and considering the demographics of their applicants when soliciting proposals and making final funding decisions. This big push towards equity on both sides of the review process promises to yield higher quality grant application rounds as well as funding decisions.

In addition to forming diverse review panels, some grantmakers are insisting upon implicit bias trainings for staff and reviewers to provide an extra layer of protection against bias. Such training, at the very least, brings the idea of bias to the forefront for stakeholders who might not have considered how it impacts the grant review process. At its best, training gives reviewers the tools to address bias and judge grant proposals more fairly.

Some grantmakers are leveraging technology such as artificial intelligence and automation in the review process to account for human-driven bias to improve the selection process. These tools can provide major assistance, ranging from how submissions are sorted among reviewers to analysis reviewer work to detect for biases. Employing single- or double-masked review methods that can also help counter the influence of various forms of bias that come up when reviewers and submitters are known to each other.

Lastly, grantmakers should focus on content rather than mechanics when reviewing grant applications. This helps grantmakers address language bias in the grant review process itself. Some applicants may not be as well-versed in specific buzzwords or jargon that resonate with funders but often still have credible and effective grant proposals worthy of funding.

After reviewing the application, grantmakers should give high-quality feedback to applicants as much as possible. This additional step counters bias (and promotes equity) by giving constructive feedback to applicants who do not have access to mentors or support services that might help them improve their applications prior to submission.

While this may seem like a tall order for grantmakers, these tactics can greatly improve the quality of the grant review process—which bias dramatically undercuts.

The right grant submission software can help free up significant time and resources for busy grantmakers focused on tackling bias in their grant review processes. Simplify and streamline the structures that support how you review grants as a first step to addressing harmful biases.

Paul Perry
Paul Perry

Paul Perry is a writer and former educator with significant experience in nonprofit management. He has a soft spot for grant-seekers striving to make the world a better, more just place.