Reducing implicit bias in philanthropy


Niki Jagpal and NCRP


Intersectionality is a word we use often in the non-profit sector. We have come to understand that we cannot address issues in isolation. That one’s gender identity is not related exclusively to our biological sex. That the experience of a poor person of colour is different because race and class intersect to create the conditions this person is born into.

But identifying the intersections of identity markers is insufficient. We must look at how these same intersections become compartmentalized and form the schema that is our conscious and unconscious mind.

Once you accept that our unconscious preferences have an impact on the way we think about each other and the world, it’s easy to see that implicit bias can be reflected in philanthropic giving, ie that unconscious preferences in a grantmaker’s mind would be parallelled in who and what gets funding.

Before talking about how implicit bias plays a role in our conscious thought processes, it’s important to understand the concept. The latest issue of Responsive Philanthropy is a special edition that explores how implicit bias affects philanthropic giving, with great pieces by Prof john a powell of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California in Berkeley, Native American activist Crystal Echo Hawk, TrueChild’s Riki Wilchins and the Workers Center for Racial Justice’s DeAngelo Bester.

In his piece, DeAngelo Bester uses the relatively harmless distinction between ‘cat people’ and ‘dog people’ as a jumping-off point for understanding implicit bias. But when we look at the persistent marginalization of African Americans, women, Native communities, LGBTQ communities, the poor and other groups, we must ask ourselves if the current structures and institutions that govern our society and identity reflect long-term biases in our unconscious minds. In describing what mind science is in the cover story, Prof john a powell says it is a means for us to understand contradictions in our attitudes (such as how many people display unconscious biases on Implicit Association Tests, without consciously professing negative attitudes about other races). Mind science ‘looks at the intersection of various ways that we process, synthesize and internalize information’.

In her article, Crystal Echo Hawk’s interviews with numerous Native and non-Native colleagues alike find a resounding bias against Indian country and that same bias is reflected in giving to Native communities. She suggests that one of the only ways of overcoming this is by getting robust data on Native populations, acknowledging explicitly that Native people are mostly ‘invisible’ in foundations and their grantmaking, and, perhaps most importantly, bringing the voices of the Native community to the decision-making table. As NCRP has stated before, it is crucial to diversify boards and include community members in discussions about strategy that affect them directly.

Acknowledging our biases is the first step towards transforming philanthropy to be more inclusive and responsive. Riki Wilchins argues that ‘group norms can act as invisible “guard rails”, locking inequalities into place while shaping and narrowing young women’s opportunities’. Recognizing our internalized biases help us to be more mindful of them when we develop philanthropic strategy.

Another simple thing to do is to take the Implicit Association Test to delve deeper into what issues might act as these ‘guard rails’ that inhibit equality of opportunity. There are myriad resources available to educate ourselves as philanthropists about the implications of unconscious bias. Prof powell suggests, among other recommendations, that we doubt objectivity, collect data and monitor the outcomes, and create institutional means to reduce bias.

The problems that philanthropy seeks to alleviate are deeply rooted and normalized. Perhaps the most important recommendation for how to diminish implicit bias is to involve community leaders in the decision-making process. Frederick Douglass once said, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ We need our country’s grantmakers to be partners in our struggle for a more just and inclusive world. Beginning by acknowledging how implicit bias is reflected in philanthropy in different ways is a good first step to the transformative changes we all seek.

Niki Jagpal is senior director of research and policy at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @niki_jagpal on Twitter.

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