Generally speaking, the decision to award a grant isn’t made by some objective algorithm – and if it was, I almost certainly wouldn’t have a job. Just like proposal writing, grantmaking is still very much a person-centric activity. And so personality has a (big) role to play. It would be wonderful to think that grantmakers (whether staff or trustees) weren’t influenced by the personalities and identities behind the proposals, but I suspect that that is not the case. I would be very surprised if subconscious biases and preconceptions did not influence our behaviour – gender, race, socioeconomic background, age, English proficiency, height, religious views, sexuality… The list of factors that can influence a decision in grantmaking is probably as long as those factors that affect decisions in other areas of our lives – from who to sit next to on the bus to which product we choose in a supermarket.
It may be assumed that one way to deal with this is to adopt techniques from education, where exams are blind marked by teachers who know nothing of the background of the exam taker. But grantmaking is a social activity and often applicants value the opportunity to be able to speak to or meet with grantmakers. And those meetings and calls can prove invaluable for applicants who struggle to express themselves well in written language, just as they can provide important context and flavour to grantmakers seeking to better understand a particular project or organisation. So if we can’t take a blind approach to grantmaking, what can we do? Some suggestions include monitoring grantmaking decisions to identify particular patterns, e.g. do a disproportionate number of grants go to organisations with male or female leaders or a particular religious angle? The trouble with such an approach is choosing what to measure – race and gender seem two of the most obvious criteria, but the choice of such criteria will be coloured by a person’s own preconceptions and may not capture why and how certain decisions are made. Moreover, it may be uncomfortable for some to countenance implicit bias or prejudices, just as it would not be fair to force applicants to specify their gender, ethnicity and myriad other aspects of identity.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question and as a self-confessed complete non-expert when it comes to this particular question I certainly don’t want to propose any answers of my own. This article provides some possible responses, but ultimately the message seems to be ‘consider carefully, keep an open mind, monitor and create clear criteria or rules by which to work’.