January 15, 2020

Equitable Grantmaking: How to Make Sure Your Review is Unbiased

No matter how fair your review team wants to be, simply thinking they will be won't cut it. To ensure equitable grantmaking, consider working in these three ideas to remove or reduce implicit bias in your review process.

When it comes to awarding grants and scholarships, everyone involved wants the same outcome: fairness. There are limited funds available, and you want to make sure those funds go to the best possible candidates or applicants. 

But how can you make absolutely certain that there’s no bias in the process of choosing those awarded with resources and those who aren’t? The simple answer used to be that you can’t be sure. 

For both grants and scholarships, nonprofits are more aware than ever of the implicit bias that can occur in the review and award processes. While you can't change how your team thinks, you can put simple processes into place that mitigate implicit bias as much as possible. 

What is implicit bias?

Implicit biases are the product of learned associations and social conditioning. They often begin in childhood, and most people are largely unaware that they hold them. The most harmful impact is that we often end up treating people a certain way as a result of these biases. Although the concept is as old as humanity, the term itself was coined by psychologist Mahzarin Banaji who explains implicit bias as having two essential components:

“First, our brains - human brains have a certain way in which we go about picking up information, learning it. If I repeatedly see that doctors are male and nurses are female, I'm going to learn that. But the second part to implicit bias is the culture in which we live.”

When we observe something more than once, we start implicitly, or unconsciously, building a pattern in our brains. That neuro-response coupled with cultural underpinnings of what value those patterns hold solidify our implicit biases, at which point we just go forward thinking that “this is just the way things are.” 

How implicit bias can skew results

Holding an implicit bias towards a particular social group can determine how you treat an individual from that group. Implicit biases affect human behavior throughout society, including in classrooms, workplaces, and the legal system. It’s important to note that implicit bias can be negative toward a specific group (like "Girls are not good at the hard sciences") or positive (such as "Asians are gifted in math"). That being said, whether the bias is positive or negative, skewed results are more likely to occur.

Studies by Harvard Business School, University of Toronto, and the National Bureau of Economic Research have all cited instances of racial employment discrimination based solely on resume information. Some studies focused on resume content that included membership in race-based organizations while others experimented with applicant names. (Turns out that applicant names that were more common in African American communities like Tenisha or Jamal were 33% less likely to get a callback for an interview.) 

When it comes to reviewing applications for a grant or scholarship, these implicit biases can work against objectivity before you can even stop it. Widely held stereotypes can lead to bias toward or against a certain individual. In the event that you want to award based solely on merit and regardless of demographic information, all steps to reduce opportunities for implicit biases should be taken. 

How to improve an objective decision process

Even though these biases are largely unconscious, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it in your selection process. Yes - it’s a long-term goal to create positive cultural shifts and overall paradigm improvement. But, there are ways to design and implement your application review process - right now - that navigates around that long-term obstacle and allows your review process to reduce or even eliminate any implicit bias in your selections for grants, awards, and scholarships.

Randomized reviewer assignments

Implicit bias doesn’t just refer to instances of prejudiced decisions and discrimination. It also means that we gravitate toward people that we perceive as similar to us. That being said, reviewers are most likely to choose to review applications of those that are most like them. Having a program in place that chooses review assignments at absolute random eliminates that element of bias altogether. 

Blind reviews

When your reviewers are not privy to demographic information, they are able to evaluate only the relevant content to the award, grant, or scholarship. Remember, implicit bias is automatic and unconscious. The only way to consciously mitigate it is by using a critical thinking process that will be met with cognitive resistance; therefore the review will take much longer to work through. 

Automating the option for blind reviews means that any information irrelevant to the application is simply unavailable to the reviewer in the first place. So your reviewers are only looking at the information that they need to evaluate to make decisions about award recipients.

Simplified & streamlined program allows for quick but thorough review 

Using scholarship or grants management software means that reviewers and program administrators are not strapped with tedious tasks and unproductive systems that take time away from the most important task: reviewing pertinent applicant information. The prestigious Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation found they could shave off a full two hours per application review using the ZengineTM platform.

If reviewers are bogged down with toggling back and forth through screens or managing cumbersome program software, that takes time and mental energy away from the necessary focus of quality time spent on applicant review.


At the end of the day, we can’t quickly re-train our brains to think differently than we have been conditioned to all of our lives. We also can’t ask our brains to NOT categorize the way that it’s programmed to. What we can do is put systems and processes in place that can navigate around those human obstacles that we bring to the review process with automated software that pairs seamlessly with the systems you already have in place.


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