How to avoid bias in grantmaking - Generocity Philly


Apr. 25, 2016 12:55 pm

How to avoid bias in grantmaking

The main thing to consider: how your own life experiences impact how you view the world.

The Ladder of Inference, from Trevor Maber's "Rethinking Thinking."


Picture this scenario.

You’re a grantmaker trying to get in touch with an applicant to ask for clarification about the structure of the program in question. You called the executive director a week ago but still haven’t heard back. Then, you hear from an outside source that the ED is planning to leave the organization in three months, which had not been disclosed to you.

Based on these anecdotes, what assumptions do you form about the strength of the organization, the director, the value of the program you may or may not be funding? Do you think the org is too unorganized to be able to get the results it says it will? Or that the director is untrustworthy because she wasn’t upfront about the leadership transition, which would happen right as the program you’d be funding would be starting?

That was the scenario put forth by Ana Lisa Yoder during a bias in grantmaking workshop produced by Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) last week. Yoder, The Philadelphia Foundation‘s longtime director of grantmaking until last December, works now as a consultant to philanthropic organizations and nonprofits with her own Yoder Consultancy.

It’s easy enough for grantmakers — and for people in general — to forget that their own life experiences impact how they view the world. And when you’re in charge of dedicating funds to nonprofits’ programming, you’d better be sure that you’re evaluating each application on its own merits according to the standards of the grantmaking institution — not your own.

The goal should be to be aware of those biases, Yoder said. Grantmakers also need to break the “philanthropy bubble” — that ivory tower made up of thinking that the grantmaker always knows best. Rather, they should try to adopt “beginner’s mind,” or the understanding that they don’t know everything and respect complexity.

One way of doing that is by consulting the Ladder of Inference, a tool for determining how you understand information about your surroundings that includes stages such as adding your own personal and cultural meaning to what you see and drawing conclusions based on how you feel about it. We move through those stages thousands of times per day, and in a matter of milliseconds.

Here’s a quick explainer on that:

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These are a few good qualities for grantmakers to have, according to workshop participants:

  • Lack of ego
  • Transparency in funding priorities
  • Proactivity in finding opportunities
  • Understanding of the funded community’s need
  • Good listening skills

Are you quick to dismiss an application because of its poor grammar? Check yourself. Are you pretty sure a nonprofit is enacting its programming in the wrong way because you happen to have experience enacting similar programs? OK, but you haven’t enacted this program.

And that ED who hasn’t called you back and is definitely quitting in a firestorm of negativity and disorganization? Are you really sure that she’s even leaving?

Maybe you should ask her.


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