GRIN blog: “How can Grant Providers minimise subjectivity and bias when assessing Grant Applications?”

“How can Grant Providers minimise bias when assessing Grant Applications?”

“A recent experience of assessing applications to a national grant programme led to a healthy discussion in the GRIN office about grant appraisal processes.

“GRIN is a small social enterprise, consisting of just two members. However, collectively we have over 60 years’ experience of designing and managing grant programmes, as well as creating appraisal methodologies for assessing grant applications. This includes National Lottery grant programmes, the Rural Development Programme, the Key Fund, European Social Fund, European Regional Development Fund, local authority grant schemes, charitable trust programmes and many more, including, more recently, government COVID support grants for businesses. We’ve worked with the Regional Development Agency, Government Office South West as well as first and second tier local authorities and infrastructure agencies.

“With so many excellent projects and amazing not-for-profits presenting well thought through and skilfully written applications for grant support, making decisions on which agencies to fund is far from easy.

“We’ve often found that decisions at Grant Panel stage can be prone to subjectivity, and the process of presenting grant applications needs to be consistent and firm in order that any drift towards bias can be held in check.

“Similarly, grant appraisal processes need to discourage subjective comments and interpretations from appraisers. The more tightly the appraisal process and presentation of portfolios to Grant Panels are controlled, the less scope there is for subjective opinions skewering those vital final grant decisions on which so many not-for-profits depend.

“Now, granted, many applicants don’t get to see appraisal processes or how decisions on grants are made as there still isn’t a great deal of transparency around how applications are assessed and conclusions on grant levels reached.

“The best appraisal processes we’ve come across are those that use grant management software (for example, the National Lottery Community Fund), and those that effectively limit bias during the appraisal stage, such as grant assessments to the European Social Fund. In many appraisal processes, objectivity can be compromised by the inclusion of personal data about applicants (for instance name, gender, location of project). With some of the European programmes we’ve assessed, such data was removed so that applications were largely anonymous. This reduced the likelihood of subjectivity and bias influencing recommendations to the Grants Panel. We also found that two appraisers working consistently together to assess batches of applications worked well, as each appraiser acted as assessor and moderator.  

“Larger Grant Panel memberships where different stakeholder interests are represented can also work well. A good example of this is LEADER, where members of the panel making final decisions on grants are selected according to the priorities of the programme. For example, if an application was to be scored against its impact on the environment, a representative of an appropriate environmental organisation with knowledge of the local landscape would attend the panel specifically to comment on the environmental aspects of each application.

“While collaboration has its benefits, we’ve found that appraisal processes that include wider, collaborative views can create peer pressure in which more vocal and bullish/articulate grant assessors can influence an application’s prioritisation through their comments at appraisal and, subsequently, grant panel stages.

“Of course, poorly conceived grant appraisal procedures can also be useful in terms of identifying processes to avoid. We’ve recently withdrawn our involvement in a national grant programme in which assessors are encouraged to contribute subjective comments at appraisal stage, which is then compounded by a grants panel with a handful of members whose own predisposed views do not appear to be sufficiently held in check. Where appraisers are given permission to contribute comments from outside the scope of the programme on applicants they know well and have supported previously as grant managers, the encouragement of partisan comments has the ability to influence the prioritisation of applications. In contrast, applicants previously unknown to appraisers are not afforded such insights and their equally strong application may therefore be overlooked. This created a two-tier, (in our view) discriminatory appraisal process which often placed first-time applicants to the programme at a disadvantage.

“When combined with a tortuous, over-engineered scoring rubric which involved working between numerous websites and tabs to align assessment criteria with each application, the appraisal process became unnecessarily complicated, and yet was undermined by a failure to manage the input of qualitative observations on applicants.  

“We would encourage all grant providers to include processes that minimise bias, as well as publishing details of their grant appraisal processes so that they can be seen as fair, trustworthy and  transparent. After all, equitable decision-making will add credibility and value to the experience of not-for-profit organisations applying to any given grant programme, while enhancing a funder’s reputation and mission.”