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Resolving to Take on the Implicit Bias in How Grant Awards Are Decided

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

By Christine Essel,
President & Chief Executive Officer, Southern California Grantmakers

More than 8,000 Starbucks stores across the country closed for an afternoon to train over 175,000 employees about racial bias this past May. The move came after two black men were arrested at a Starbucks store in Philadelphia while waiting for a friend, an incident that called into question implicit bias at the company and in society.

Like so many other racially-charged incidents that have gone viral this year, this turn of events prompted me to think: racial bias doesn’t only rear its head while selling $5 cups of espresso. It’s time to acknowledge—and act on—the fact that it also exists among the “good people” who work in philanthropy and who have devoted their careers to making the world a better place.

In recent years, many in the philanthropy sector (including my own organization’s membership and staff, and myself personally) have taken steps to examine and call out systemic inequities based on race, gender and other factors in grantmaking and in our communities. As I wrote in one of my President’s messages earlier this year, SCG is deeply committed to the crucial work of equity—within our own organization and throughout our programming, policy initiatives and partnerships. Across everything we do, we are working to become more aware and continually examine how our work is intertwined with questions of equity—especially racial equity.

But this commitment to equity by so many of us in the sector misses a crucial point about bias: sometimes we don’t even realize we are exhibiting it. By its very nature, there is bias in grantmaking. Sometimes that bias is good, and we are explicit about calling it out; for instance, when we choose not to fund racist organizations or hate groups. However, the problem occurs when the “good people” of philanthropy exhibit biases that they don’t even know about or intend to exhibit.

The Rev. Dr. Bryant T. Marks, Sr., a national expert on implicit bias who spoke at a packed breakout session at our recent Annual Conference centered around equity, shared with us that he defines implicit bias as mental associations of certain groups with specific traits below conscious awareness, which are often followed by subconscious prejudice and/or discrimination in a manner that benefits oneself or one’s group and/or disadvantages out-groups. Implicit bias tends to involve a limited or inaccurate perception of others.

So how does implicit bias come up in organizations and in our sector, and more importantly, what can we do to counter it? Implicit bias shows up in “moments of discretion”—when a decision is not obviously right or wrong. At the organizational level, it shows up with hiring, promotions, office resources and space allocation, choosing vendors and service providers and selecting board members. It even shows up in something as simple as who has a voice at the table at staff meetings.

As it relates to the philanthropic grantmaking sector as a whole, implicit bias manifests itself in the following ways, among others:

  • What priority areas grantmakers fund. Implicit bias affects how we engage with communities to understand true needs and how we read and digest data about disparities between subgroups, all of which ultimately affects what we fund.
  • Who grantmakers seek to fund and partner with to fund. Implicit bias can limit who we fund, as is the case with invitation-only vs. open application grantmaking. It also affects who we choose to consult to assess if we should fund (e.g., organizations in our neighborhoods; religious institutions; alma maters and schools our children attend; larger institutions with civic gravitas over smaller organizations that might be working with more marginalized populations)
  • How grantmakers fund. Even decisions about how we fund are affected by implicit bias, as is the case with funders who only make large grants (so small organizations do not apply) or program grants rather than general operating support for organizations that are small or less established—which are often in communities of color.

With a better picture of how implicit bias affects SCG and the grantmaking sector, we can and will take steps to counter it.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that implicit bias exists.

On an individual level, I encourage everyone to take an implicit bias test. While the results might surprise you, they shouldn’t make you feel ashamed.

At the organizational level, SCG leadership and staff will undergo implicit bias training and will continue to examine our own policies, practices and procedures regarding hiring, promotions and board selection for implicit bias. If Starbucks can do it for 175,000 people across the country, surely we can do it for our staff of just over 20.

Yet our work is not limited to us as individuals or to our organization. As a regional association of grantmakers, our job is to leverage what we have learned and to serve as a catalyst for our members and the sector. Indeed, our members have repeatedly indicated to us that they want us to be that catalyst.

Therefore, moving forward in 2019, we hope to lead by example as well as to leverage our learning by providing a place to learn, connect and take action on implicit bias in grantmaking.

As folks who work at a nonprofit and in philanthropy, we try so hard to do “good” and be “good people.” As leaders, it’s challenging to admit that we may not be making the “right” decisions. But in 2019, we resolve to see not only those around us but also ourselves as clearly as possible. Speaking for myself and for SCG, we will deepen our commitment to learn, listen and grow in our ability to be the equity-centered leaders we aspire to be.

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