Growing up, Judy Perry loved to dance ballet, but couldn’t afford classes and lessons to pursue it as a career. She’s now working to ensure that children in Worcester have more support to follow their passions.

Perry runs a nonprofit organization called the Jubilee Career Center for the Performing Arts, which partners with local universities and instructors to create free after-school programming for underprivileged children. She even has something that could take Jubilee to another level: a school bus redesigned into a mobile classroom to bring educational programs to underserved communities.

But for years the bus has sat idle in a parking lot, its paint slowly peeling off from the sun and rain, because she doesn’t have enough money to cover the cost of operating it.

Perry relies on fundraising and her own pocketbook to keep Jubilee afloat. She’s tried to secure grants from philanthropic organizations in Worcester that fund nonprofits, to no avail.

“It’s very discouraging,” Perry said. “I try to hold on to the fact that timing is everything, and I’m like, ‘OK, Lord, I’m just going to keep going.’”

Perry’s experience is similar to that of other small nonprofit leaders of color in Worcester who argue the funding process is rife with inequities, a microcosm of the national funding landscape. The leaders say they consistently lose out on funding opportunities because they don’t meet certain requirements and don’t have as many connections to the philanthropic community as more established, white-led nonprofits.

Executives of some of Worcester largest’s nonprofit funding organizations agree the system includes barriers and say they’re working to make it more equitable. Still, they argue there’s only so much funding to go around.

A school bus
Murals of math equations and planets cover the mobile classroom bus.
Sam Turken GBH News

‘I don’t have the money for that’

The bus was a gift from a member of Jubilee’s board of directors in 2015, a year after Perry started the nonprofit in Worcester. It's decked out with computers, desks and cabinets, and Perry has teamed up with local artists to paint vibrant murals of math equations and planets on the outside.

Perry and Dan Ford, who runs another nonprofit that teaches youth how to fix cars, planned to bring the bus to different underserved Worcester communities. Children would be able to sign up for classes taught by local university instructors on a variety of topics, such as film editing, robotics, animation, 3D printing and fashion design. Other nonprofits would also be able to book time on the bus to give the people they work with computer access.

“The [potential] is limitless,” Ford said. “There’s an energy with the bus. ... [It] can provide that cultivating, growing space.”

"You write these grants and you begin to question yourself — 'well, am I writing the right things?'"
Judy Perry, founder of Jubilee Career Center for the Performing Arts

But Perry and Ford’s plans can’t go anywhere without funding for Wi-Fi, insurance and fuel.

Perry said she’s applied for one grant after another worth up to $10,000 from local nonprofit funders like the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. They continue to reject her, often without explaining why. She’s tried to seek feedback and improve her grant applications, but that hasn’t helped.

“You write these grants and you begin to question yourself — ‘well, am I writing the right things?’” she said. “If they would have gotten back to me, I would have understood what I was doing wrong, if I was doing something wrong.”

Derrick Kiser has also struggled to access grant money for his nonprofit Fresh Start, which provides mental health counseling to at-risk youth. Since its founding in 2018, Fresh Start has helped more than 300 youth and young adults stay out of the criminal justice system. Kiser has partnered with the Worcester Sheriff’s Office and Worcester Public Schools to implement mental health programming to help formerly incarcerated people assimilate back into society and sway people to leave gangs.

Kiser said he knows how to help people recover from trauma and turn their lives around. He’s a former leader of a gang in Worcester who spent a combined four years in prison and jail before going on to receive a master’s degree and become a licensed mental health counselor. And yet, he said funders, including the city of Worcester, continue to skip over him when they dole out grant money to local organizations that work to combat youth violence.

He’s relied on personal savings and volunteers to run his nonprofit. But he said that’s not sustainable and he can longer afford to pay for his office in downtown Worcester.

“I’ve been [wearing] too many different hats — grant writer, businessman, paying all these bills ... dealing with 50, 70 individuals every week,” Kiser said. “I don’t have the money for that.”

A man sits at desk in front of a computer
Derrick Kiser runs Fresh Start, a nonprofit that uses mental health counseling to help kids and young adults cope with trauma and stay out of the criminal justice system.
Sam Turken GBH News

He fears that cutting back Fresh Start’s services could negatively impact the kids and young adults he works with, which has happened before.

Ameen Lacy used to be in a Worcester gang and spent time in a juvenile detention center on stolen car and gun charges. Once he began working with Kiser, he left the gang and avoided trouble. But when the pandemic limited their time together, he was arrested again.

“I just had more free time. More free time turns into bad time. I started hanging out with old friends, doing old habits,” Lacy said. “When I was hanging out with [Kiser], I had so much things to do.”

Kiser hopes federal pandemic relief funds he's applied for in recent months will help him keep operating.

Nonprofits like his that have struggled to receive money through traditional avenues will have a chance to get funding from the city of Worcester, which is awarding more than $10 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. The city is currently reviewing applications for the funding and could make final decisions by February.

“We need that ARPA money to assist the forgotten community,” Kiser said.

A systemic problem

Concerns about the fairness of the nonprofit funding process are not unique to Worcester. Studies have shown that race remains a defining factor when looking at which organizations nationwide access funding and how much they receive.

That’s because Black and brown leaders who’ve started nonprofits in the last few years may not have as much experience writing grants or as many connections as white people who’ve run nonprofits for a while, according to Ben Wood, a senior director with Boston-based Health Resources in Action, which works to make philanthropy more equitable. Funders may also add requirements to their grants to minimize their investment risk but are hard for younger nonprofits to meet, like mandating they be in existence for a minimum number of years or have a certain amount of annual expenses.

Wood noted that many minority-led nonprofits seek to help communities of color that governments have historically neglected due to racism. When funders are unwilling to take a chance on those nonprofits, they perpetuate that neglect.

We need to invest “in the organizations that are closest to populations that are experiencing the inequities,” Wood said. “It has to be about moving resources in new and different ways.”

"As much as I would love to say we're going to help develop nonprofits, I don't see anybody with a large enough swath of money to be able to say, 'Go ahead and do that.'"
Tim Garvin, CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts

Tim Garvin, CEO and president of the United Way of Central Massachusetts — which gives out millions of dollars in grants every year — said he tries to make the funding process as barrier free as possible. But he said a lot of the grant money comes from private donors who want their donations to quickly help communities. That often forces the United Way to avoid risk and give the money to organizations with a history of receiving grants and managing them appropriately.

Garvin and Tim Johnstone, interim CEO and president of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, said they want smaller nonprofits to have better access to grant money. A possible way to ensure that, they said, could be to raise money specifically for organizations that have struggled to secure funding. But even then, it would be difficult to meet the need, considering Worcester has more than a hundred nonprofits but limited philanthropic donations.

“I can’t get enough money to put into youth development in this community right now,” Garvin said. “I still can’t get enough money for basic human needs of shelter and food. And so as much as I would love to say we’re going to help develop nonprofits, I don’t see anybody with a large enough swath of money to be able to say, ‘Go ahead and do that.’”

A potential opportunity

The American Rescue Plan Act funding could fill the nonprofit funding gap in Worcester — at least temporarily. The money, which the federal government has distributed to states and localities, is supposed to go to vulnerable communities most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acting City Manager Eric Batista, who will review recommendations and have the final say about which organizations and residents receive ARPA funding, told GBH News he wants to prioritize the smaller nonprofits that have struggled to access grant money in the past.

The money will only go out once, meaning that after nonprofits use it up, they can’t apply for more. They’ll then have to go back to relying on grants from Worcester’s funding community.

But Batista said once a smaller nonprofit has the ARPA money on their track record, it may be able to better compete for the other grants.

“The ARPA dollars can be a place where it helps organizations — smaller grassroots organizations — get the capacity they need to build so that they can position themselves for these other, greater funds,” he said.

If he receives some of the ARPA money, Derrick Kiser said he plans to use it to hire staff and pay for his office. Judy Perry, however, won't benefit from the funds because she didn't apply for them. She initially didn’t think the city would allow her to use the money for the mobile classroom bus. By the time she realized otherwise, the application deadline had already passed.

Instead, she’s applied for a separate grant — another attempt to finally start using the bus.