Stronger Foundations blog: Linguistic Expectations

25 March 2021

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we have been publishing a series of provocations from members and others offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

This contribution is from Dana Kohava Segal. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #StrongerFoundations.

Over the last few years, I have seen more and more trusts and foundations express an interest in supporting diverse, grassroots, and community-led organisations to apply for funding. This is a great intention, but how much of this interest is actually shifting the power and translating into successful grants?

It’s important to acknowledge that fundraising from trusts and foundations is, and always has been, a competitive process. However, there are still too many organisations that apply for funding and get knocked back for not communicating as competitively with people who speak English as their first language.

As a bilingual speaker, I love working with organisations whose leadership or fundraisers speak English as their second or third language. I’ve been told by people in these organisations - who do exactly the sort of work that so many funders want to support - that in some cases they have applied up to 20 times to the same funder with no success. The feedback they get on rejection often cites ‘a lack of project clarity’ or that the funder was ‘unconvinced about the project impact’. One non-native speaker I worked with was even told that their organisation was not ‘professionalised’ enough, despite working with and for their community for over 10 years.

I love stepping in and ‘translating’ their dreams, plans and projects into the ‘right’ kind of language that then unlocks the funding. However, it creates a power dynamic that I don’t feel ok with. Who holds the power when it comes to the language of grant giving? What inequalities are funders exacerbating through their linguistic expectations? Are there any practical steps funders can take to avoid linguistic discrimination in grantmaking?

I believe are three key biases funders need to understand and acknowledge before they can start to solve this issue:

  1. “The Halo Effect” occurs when one trait of an organisation is used to make an overall judgement of them. This means a high-quality and impactful project can be written about ‘badly’ and influence trustees or grant assessors' impression of the organisation as a whole. This bias has an adverse impact on people who speak English as a second or third language: if the quality of their work is at risk of being assessed based on the quality of their writing rather than the work itself, how can funders be confident that the decision they made is fair?

  2. “Implicit Egotism” is a hypothesis that humans have an unconscious preference for things they associate with themselves. Particular colloquial phrases, jargon or nomenclatures within the narrative of an application that resonate with trustees or grant assessors may unlock this bias. Again, this creates a significant potential disadvantage for those who speak English as a second or third language.

  3. This problem isn’t purely with the written word either. As funders open up new formats of application, these biases can still exist within video or audio-based applications. Many studies about “Accent Bias” show that the same statement spoken by a non-native speaker is less trustworthy than when spoken by a native speaker.

As the ACF continues to challenge funders to do better when it comes to non-discriminatory practices, I’d like to make the case for five funding practices that go some way towards decolonising and democratising the linguistic power dynamic in grant giving.

My hope is that this will enable foundations and trusts to turn their intentions into actions, when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion. Ultimately, this should result in them funding a broader range of organisations.

For funders with very little capacity:

  1. Add a tick box question on your application form that asks if the applicant is writing in their second or third language. With the context clear from the beginning, this should aid grant assessors to manage their own “Halo Effect” bias as they read and assess the application.

  2. Simplify, or at the very least provide a definition of, any unusual terminology in your criteria. This should remove the chance for “Implicit Egotism” and offer a fairer chance for non-native English speakers to meet your assessment criteria.

For funders with more resources and capacity:

  1. Nominate an objective eye to observe the decision-making discussions and raise a flag if they witness one of the biases above emerge in the conversations. This could help increase awareness of the biases amongst decisionmakers, and avoid any discriminatory decisions being made.

  2. Provide alternative application formats (such as video and audio) to give applicants a broader range of ways to communicate their requests. To avoid “Accent Bias”, have them turned into transcripts and read the application as written.

  3. Reduce your reliance on the traditional application processes by offering more conversational or relationship-based stages into the assessment process. Spend more time getting to know your applicants and understanding their work on their terms, not yours.

These are just initial suggestions based on my experiences so far. I would love to hear how you are tackling language discrimination, and discuss further ideas and practical suggestions to making funding application processes more inclusive and accessible to all. Let’s not let our biases get in the way of good intentions and great charitable work.

Dana Kohava Segal will be leading a workshop on 27 May to explore and design practical solutions to barriers facing applicants with English as a second or third language. 

Dana is a rebellious humanitarian working at the intersections of culture, society and politics. As a fundraising strategist she works with charities, NGOs and INGOs globally.

In a voluntary capacity she is a Trustee of New Israel Fund UK, the Co-Chair of Emergency Exit Arts and Co-Chair of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising’s Cultural Sector Network.

Views in this series are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACF or its membership.
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