Unconscious bias is a powerful, subtle force shaping our lives, from daily choices to life-changing decisions. It stems from our brain's need for rapid information processing. It affects everything from restaurant choices, to hiring decisions, to friendships, trust, and so much more. While bias can't be entirely eliminated, awareness and conscious decision-making can help us make higher-quality choices. In this interview between Chicago Beyond and Lever for Change, we explore how to combat unconscious bias in decision-making and a tool developed to help in the philanthropic funding process.
Chicago Beyond (CB): Chicago Beyond is a philanthropic organization that works to ensure all young people and community members are free to live full lives. We invest and engage in opportunities across a range of issue areas, while leading national systems change efforts, and supporting community-driven solutions. In the past, we have also funded sizeable research projects. Our experience with research was one of many that showed us firsthand how unconscious bias creates an imbalance of power in the philanthropic sector, and how much work needs to be done to ensure more equitable philanthropic funding occurs across the globe. Lever for Change, whose customized grant challenge model is designed to intentionally shift that balance of power philanthropy, is one organization in the sector that is also doing this work. And so, in 2020, we teamed up on what has become a learning journey.
Lever for Change (LFC): First, let us take a step back and discuss our process. Using an inclusive, equitable model and due diligence process, Lever for Change creates customized challenges and other tailored funding opportunities to connect donors with bold solutions to the world’s biggest problems—including issues like racial inequity, gender inequality, lack of access to economic opportunity, and climate change. At Lever for Change, we center our work on the core values of openness, transparency, equity, and inclusion. In our typical challenge model, applicants undergo two rounds of review. First, applicants provide and receive feedback from other applicants. Then, applications are reviewed by an Evaluation Panel recruited for experience relevant to the challenge. Lever for Change intentionally recruits reviewers from across sectors, including from the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors, academia, government, and more. As part of our commitment to ensuring a transparent and equitable process, we have designed a scoring process that addresses bias both before scoring begins and, on the back end, after reviewers have submitted their scores. One of the most important parts of addressing bias on the front end of the process is ensuring that reviewers recognize it in themselves because, after all, we all have it. So, before the review begins, all Participatory and Evaluation Panel Reviewers attend a training webinar that covers this, among other things.
CB: Understanding Lever for Change’s rigorous approach towards the goal of addressing bias, a first step was awareness. To support this work, in 2020, we created the Recognizing Bias video, in which our Founder & CEO, Liz Dozier, shares examples of how unintentional bias shows up in philanthropy and how reviewers in Lever for Change’s processes can become aware of how their bias may help or hinder their judging process. Even small things such as the writing style of a grant may elicit one’s beauty bias and hinder one’s judgment.
LFC: Recognizing Bias is a core component of all our Participatory and Evaluation Panel Review training webinars across challenges. We’ve heard from applicants and Evaluation Panel Reviewers alike that it’s a resource that they find helpful not only as they complete reviews but also in their day-to-day work. For example, one reviewer shared the video with their internal Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion task force while another incorporated the training into their organization’s grant review process. The feedback showed us that our hundreds of reviewers were finding the information practically useful, and encouraged us to continue.
CB: That’s an important part of the framing; addressing our biases is a continuing process. That has certainly been Chicago Beyond’s experience. And while the first step in that process is certainly recognition, unconscious bias is not a switch that, once identified, can simply be turned off. However, research has shown that though we cannot get rid of biases completely, we can reduce them. By slowing ourselves down and becoming hyper-aware of the decisions we are making in real time, we can ask ourselves why we may have an affinity for one thing versus another. Knowing Lever for Change engages in an Evaluation Panel Review process for grant applications, Chicago Beyond saw an opportunity to enable reviewers to reduce bias by putting a tool in their hands.
To support grant application reviewers during the Lever for Change scoring process to slow themselves down to make more conscious choices as they score applications, Chicago Beyond developed the Mirror Tool, which is a version of our unconscious bias practice. The Mirror Tool introduces real-time friction and decreases ambiguity in our thinking. It helps us to examine our conclusions, vet our own rationales, and gives us the vocabulary to understand unconscious factors that may be at play in a decision we make or a preference we have. As a result, the truth of what we intend to contribute comes forward instead of a score that may be based on what is familiar, or other common, very natural human tendencies in decision-making. It moves us away from a linear process of, “review then score, review then score,” to a more thoughtful and intentional way of thinking.
This is how it works. First, the reviewer is asked to take three deep, cleansing breaths so that they are fully present in the moment. Next, they review one submission in full. As they review the submission, the reviewer can use the Mirror Tool to mark biases they may notice – from beauty bias to confirmation bias. Reviewers are encouraged to jot down notes or simply register their awareness of a bias. They then enter draft scores into the Mirror Tool, noticing their reasoning for each score. If they notice a connection between bias and their reasoning, they may choose to revisit their scoring and review that application again before scores are submitted.
LFC: Taking that pause to slow down and think about why is critical. The goal is to enable reviewers to go one step beyond simply recognizing their biases. By building in space for reflection and noticing in the evaluation process, the Mirror Tool helps grant application reviewers see their own rationales more clearly and distinguish what is intentionally driving their decisions from what they are unwittingly factoring. This leads to more effective individual and collective participation and higher-quality decisions. We are hearing from judges that the tool is helping them become aware of bias, impacting their scoring, and giving them a tool they want to apply in other settings.
CB: Exactly. The central idea is that the strategies the Tool employs can be applied in any decision-making setting, big or small. When we take a moment to utilize this process, we give ourselves the opportunity to notice, question, make higher-quality decisions, and usher in the opportunity for transformative change within the philanthropic sector.
 Stanford University Professor and 2014 MacArthur Fellow Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt has published extensively on this topic. More here.