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Grant application and review practices for more equitable and inclusive funding 

Three people reviewing an application.

In 2022, giving by foundations grew to more than $105 billion, accounting for more than 20% of total U.S. charitable giving. The significant role foundations play in advancing the social good underscores the need to incorporate equitable and inclusive grant application and review practices. Grantseekers look to grantmaking organizations to demonstrate their commitment to fairness before applying for funding. Donors, funders, and nonprofit organizations all have a real stake in best practices in these processes, because they can impact the availability of resources and the caliber of the applicant pool. 

Five best practices for fair funding outcomes 

Ask program officers how their grant application and review processes were established, and you may encounter one of two common responses: 1) Their application submission platform came with pre-set stages dictating the process; or 2) they modeled them after steps used by another prominent organization in their field. Over time, they may refine those processes based on staff and reviewer experiences and as new best practices emerge. If the goal is to ensure that funds are distributed to individuals and nonprofits fairly and without the influence of reputation, prestige, or privilege, these five steps can make a meaningful difference: 

Simplify the grant application. One of the quickest ways to see how cumbersome a grant application may be is to have staff or a trusted volunteer attempt to complete it and note any redundancies in data entry, extraneous data requests, or other obstacles. The form should be as concise as possible, and the effort required to complete it should be proportionate to the amount of potential funding. Ideally, the application materials should be viewable well before the application window to allow applicants sufficient time to prepare, and all online forms should have “save and return” functionality.  

Offer additional support. Beyond providing instructions for completing and submitting the form, consider offering additional guidance such as proposal examples, file-naming conventions, FAQs, and how-to videos. Accessible organizations will provide call-in helplines, informational webinars, one-on-one coaching, translation, and more. 

Diversify and train the reviewer pool. Examine the source(s) and composition of your reviewer pool over the last three years to determine how they have or have not changed—and where there are opportunities to bring in new perspectives. A diverse reviewer pool is representative of different backgrounds and experiences, genders, regions, levels of education, institution sizes, disciplines, nonprofit experience, and/or areas of specialty or advanced training. Once you’ve recruited a balanced cohort of reviewers, set up a training call or video conference to explain the organization’s mission, program goals, application and review process, and factors of importance, with an emphasis on bias mitigation. 

Implement anonymized reviews. Anonymizing data such as name, gender, gender-identifying pronouns, and institutional information in the early stage of reviews can reduce reputational prestige bias. A multi-year study found that this cut nearly in half the relative advantage of the highest-ranked institutions over the lowest-ranked institutions. Anonymizing the process not only streamlines the application for grantseekers but also decreases reviewers’ workload and burnout. Moreover, it keeps the focus on the content of the application rather than the background of the applicant. 

Provide feedback for unsuccessful applications. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to ensure a fair grant application and review process is to share constructive feedback with applicants whose submissions get declined. This educates the applicant pool and supports their future endeavors, providing useful information about what grantmaking organizations look for in a successful proposal and how to best highlight their qualifications. The benefits of this practice are twofold: The exercise supports staff development by putting a focus on transparency, and it cultivates the applicant pool by helping to advance equitable access, better preparing potential grantees with the right resources, eliminating barriers to participation, and improving mission-matched outcomes. For those that have yet to apply, sharing an example of a mock proposal with feedback attached offers insight into the organization’s expectations. 

Taking a step toward equity in funding 

Some grantmaking organizations have already embedded these concepts into their culture and have been improving processes continuously. For others, these grant application and review practices may be more aspirational; the concepts are easy to embrace but can be hard to integrate. The actionable tips above for each practice should help in getting started. 

In the quest to increase equity in funding distribution, every step toward equitable and inclusive grantmaking practices is valuable. The sector as a whole benefits from funders addressing any unintended biases in grant application and review processes that can run counter to their missions. Process improvements take time, but steady progress keeps the goal in sight and achievable.  

Photo credit: Julia Amaral via Getty Images

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