Equitable grantmaking: Why you shouldn’t treat all grant applicants equally

Posted on 17 Sep 2020

By Joshua Presser, Our Community

Recent global events have brought equity back to the top of the agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the disproportionate impact of the crisis on vulnerable and marginalised groups. At the same time, the death of George Floyd in the United States has set off a global outcry against the systemic racism and discrimination that create structural disadvantage and inequity.

Georgefloyd and chauvin
(L-R) George Floyd and the officer who arrested him Derek Chauvin.

Australia has its share of these problems. Events in the USA have highlighted the shameful treatment of Australia’s own First Nations people and sparked mass protests across the country. The Victorian government’s decision to lock down nine public housing towers in Melbourne provided another example of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on low-income and marginalised people. Similarly, Australia has a gender inequality problem, with the gender pay gap (just one of many measures of gender equality) sitting at 13.9%.

Equality and equity are not the same. Systems and structures of power and inequality within our society mean that treating people equally will not necessarily result in fair outcomes. The principle of substantive equality acknowledges these systemic barriers and advocates additional measures to ‘level the playing field’ and ensure that marginalised groups can enjoy their human rights equally with other, more privileged groups.

Grantmakers operate from a position of privilege in our society and have often benefited from the very structures and systems that act as barriers to marginalised and disadvantaged communities. If grantmakers are not conscious of these systemic barriers when doing their work, they risk unconsciously perpetuating the very structures and systems of inequality they are trying to address.

Structures of bias, disadvantage and inequity in our society stem from dimensions such as (but not limited to) race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability, or a combination of all or any of these. Equitable grantmaking is about being conscious of the barriers faced by disadvantaged groups as a result of the inequitable distribution of power and resources along the lines of those dimensions, and incorporating the notion of substantive equality (or equity) into grantmaking organisations and practices.

Equality and Equity
Here’s one of the many images that have helped sparked conversations about equity across the world. This illustration by the Interaction Institute for Social Change/Angus Maguire

Strategies to drive equity can be broadly categorised as internal and external. Internal strategies focus on internal culture and systems (e.g. How diverse is your staff? Are all the senior decision-makers white men?), while external strategies relate more to outward-facing grantmaking practice (e.g. How do your grants lead to equitable outcomes in the communities you serve?).

There is no one-size-fits all approach to equitable grantmaking. However, as a general rule, you should look both internally (critically examine your own organisation and make sure you’ve got your house in order) and externally (critically examine how your grantmaking practice contributes to equity). Each grantmaker must tread their own path towards equity, but acknowledging the need for action is an important first step.

Internal strategies: Becoming a more equitable grantmaking organisation

Embed equity into leadership and organisational culture

Regardless of the focus of your grantmaking, internal inequity is likely to be a barrier to full achievement of your organisational goals. An organisational approach builds equity into organisational goals, values, policies, practices, procedures and culture. Here are some possible approaches to embedding equity into your organisation:

  • Start at the top – goals and strategy. Embed equity into your organisation’s strategy by aligning it with your high-level goals. Equity principles incorporated into your organisational goals will flow through to your strategic planning and operations.
  • Consider incorporating equity into your statement of organisational values. Well defined values are key to building a strong culture in an organisation. Values and culture will guide decision making in your organisation. A strong equity culture will guide your people when they are carrying out your strategy, policies and procedures on the ground.
  • As a leader, walk the talk. It goes without saying that leaders have a critical role to play in driving cultural change. Not only do they set the strategic direction of the organisation and communicate the rationale for change, they also set the tone through their actions. In order to be effective, leaders must be authentic and “walk the talk” through their behaviours and decisions. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently appointed a president of gender equality, sending a clear message that the organisation is serious about gender equity, both within the organisation and across all its funded programs.
  • Bring people along: embed equity from the bottom up. Good leaders know that change isn’t something that is done to people; rather, it’s a journey that you have to bring people on. Leaders looking to embed a culture of equity need to find ways to engage people in the process, to build culture and drive change from the bottom up. One approach is to set up equity working groups or committees with ‘equity champions’ from across the organisation, at all levels, to work collaboratively on embedding equity principles into grantmaking processes and corporate policies.
  • Embed equity into corporate policies. An organisation’s internal policies are an expression of corporate values and are also important drivers of culture. Embedding equity principles into corporate policies has the dual benefit of reinforcing a culture of equity, and also addressing systemic barriers and structural disadvantage within the organisation and the broader community. For example, a corporate social procurement policy that is aligned with an organisation’s values can also address systemic disadvantage. By buying products and services from social enterprises or from enterprises run by marginalised or disadvantaged groups (e.g. Indigenous groups, refugee groups), an organisation can address structural barriers to employment and economic participation faced by members of these communities.

Increase diversity within your organisation

How well do the demographics of your organisation match those of the communities you serve? How diverse is the leadership of your organisation? How many women and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds do you have on your board or in your executive leadership team?

Grantmakers are a privileged bunch. The recruitment of more people from privileged backgrounds only serves to perpetuate structural and systemic inequities and reinforce the status quo. It also reinforces accepted orthodoxies (and biases) about ‘what works’, stifling innovation and limiting the ability of an organisation to address inequity and deliver good outcomes for the people they are trying to help.

The benefits of diversity for organisations are well documented. In a grantmaking context, a diverse workforce consisting of people from a range of backgrounds with different experiences encourages different perspectives and helps prevent blind spots. It also allows your organisation to connect and engage with a more diverse range of potential grantees, partners and other stakeholders.

Diversity targets create tangible goals, driving action and accountability. Likewise, embedding equity in recruitment policies and practice acknowledges and accounts for the systemic barriers to employment faced by some groups. For example, the Australian government’s RecruitAbility program encourages employment of people with a disability in the Australian Public Service. Under the policy, applicants who identify as having a disability and who meet the minimum requirements of the role automatically progress to the next round of the recruitment process.

External strategies: designing and delivering equitable grants programs

Embed equity into program design

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, many US grantmakers have deployed specific racial justice grants. However, even if your organisation is not focused primarily on addressing racism or injustice, you can embed secondary equity outcomes and metrics into your programs. For example, a sports and recreation program whose main aim is improved health and wellbeing might add a secondary desired outcome related to gender equity: “to increase the number of women and girls participating in sports and recreation”.

Grantmakers seeking to improve the diversity of grant applicants could consider embedding equity into program metrics; for example “number of grant applicants from culturally and linguistically diverse groups”.

To better improve your grants equity, you’ll need to target different communities, probably with different methods.

Applying an equity lens: Getting educated and understanding barriers

Systemic inequities are often invisible to the privileged. Grantmakers who don’t understand the degree to which structural inequities contribute to the issues they are trying to address will never be able to achieve their desired outcomes. Here are some strategies to help grantmakers understand the complex barriers facing those they are trying to assist:

  • Engage with communities. Broadening your networks beyond your usual contacts and engaging directly with target communities (and organisations run by those communities) will help you to better understand the ways in which structural inequities contribute to the issues you are trying to address, and to design your program accordingly.
  • Consider co-design. Co-design takes consultation one step further and sees those who are affected by a particular challenge as “experts of their own experience”. The co-design process allows those who are affected by an issue an opportunity to collaborate equally with grantmakers in devising solutions.
  • Use data. Equitable grantmakers collect data and disaggregate by race, ethnicity, gender etc to enable identification and analysis of the structural barriers preventing disadvantaged cohorts from achieving equitable outcomes. Collection and analysis of data enables measurement of outcomes and facilitates a continuous improvement process.

If you’re not collecting this data, now might be a good time to start. Insight, Impact, and Equity: Collecting Demographic Data, by Peak Grantmaking, is a great resource for grantmakers looking to use data to drive equity in their grantmaking. It explores what data to collect, how to use it and how to interpret it to drive equity.

How fair is your assessment criteria anyway?

Applying an equity lens: Developing eligibility and assessment criteria

What organisations and projects are going to be best placed to deliver your desired outcomes (including equity outcomes)? Here are some possible strategies for applying an equity lens to your assessment criteria:

  • Ask grant applicants how they will account for barriers to participation for different cohorts (including systemic or structural barriers) and apply equity lenses to their proposed projects. For example, you might include a question asking how the applicant plans to address the needs of people with disabilities or CALD communities in the design and delivery of their proposed project.
  • Consider funding organisations led by the communities you are trying to reach with your program. Community-led organisations often have lived experience of the issues and a nuanced understanding of what their communities need. They can bring unique and culturally appropriate perspectives and innovative ideas.
  • If you are aiming to attract diverse community organisations to apply for your grants, how will you ensure that your application process is equitable? Will you provide information in other languages? How will you provide information and assistance to prospective applicants to level the playing field and ensure equity in the assessment and decision-making process?
  • Will you require grant applicants to demonstrate a connection to the communities you are targeting? Applicants can demonstrate their connections to community in many ways; for example, through the diversity of their own organisations, previous project evaluations or letters of support from community groups, leaders or other stakeholders.

The SmartyGrants gender lens

SmartyGrants has gender lens questions built into the system as standard fields. These questions help bring the gender agenda into focus for grantees to ensure the specific needs of all people are effectively addressed. In addition, a series of evaluation and acquittal questions ask grant recipients to outline whether and how they have considered gender in their grant-funded projects or programs, and to identify what percentage of their beneficiaries were women or girls. Learn more

Are your assessments a good reflection of your demographic?

Promoting equity and addressing bias in funding decisions

As its name suggests, unconscious (or implicit) bias is an extremely challenging problem to address. Even the most well intentioned grantmakers can make biased or discriminatory judgements or decisions, despite believing strongly in the principles of equity.

A recent study by two not-for-profits, Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group, revealed the depths of racial bias in philanthropic funding in the USA. The study uncovered a 24% funding disparity between black-led organisations and their white-led counterparts. The survey found an even larger disparity in unrestricted grants (a key measure of trust), with black-led organisations receiving 76% less in unrestricted grants than their white-led counterparts.

Similarly, a study by the US-based Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) found that treating prospective grantees equally when assessing their financial viability serves to exacerbate existing inequities between white-led organisations and those led by people of colour. NFF has published a guide called Addressing Racially Biased Financial Analysis to help grantmakers take an equitable approach to their analysis of potential grant recipients.

There is no silver bullet for addressing unconscious bias. However, organisational strategies to build an equity culture, embed equity principles into policies and procedures and increase diversity will help. Increased engagement with people from a diverse range of backgrounds can also help to challenge commonly held biases.

Here are some additional strategies grantmakers might consider when applying an equity lens to funding decisions:

  • Making grant assessment teams aware of the nature of biases through unconscious bias training is a good starting point in addressing bias in grant assessments. The Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a useful online tool for building self-awareness and fostering discussion.
  • The use of external assessment panels from diverse communities (or target communities) can provide new perspectives on funding applications.
  • Engaging members of beneficiary communities as advisors or consultants in assessment or selection processes is another strategy to address possible bias in your assessment process.

SmartyGrants is conducting research into ways to identify bias and ‘play back’ bias to grantmakers. For example, SmartyGrants can make it easier for grantmakers to see which subject areas and population groups have higher or lower approval rates than average and which keywords are associated with a grant being more or less likely to be approved.

Equitable evaluation

Evaluation is a key part of the grantmaking lifecycle. It is an opportunity to reflect on funded projects and programs, investigate the extent to which your grants achieved your desired outcomes (including equity outcomes) and consider opportunities for improvement.

However, like other elements of the grantmaking process, evaluation can be subject to unconscious bias. The Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI) is a great resource for grantmakers seeking to apply an equity lens to their evaluation process. Based on three key principles, Equitable Evaluation seeks to challenge the established orthodoxies of evaluation, to ensure evaluation processes don’t reinforce or exacerbate the inequities that your grantmaking efforts have sought to address.


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