Nonprofit leaders and local activists in Worcester say the city’s process for awarding federal COVID-19 relief funding to community groups has been inequitable, arguing that a significant chunk of the money is going to large organizations that already have sufficient support.

Late last year, the city of Worcester accepted applications from local nonprofits and other organizations for about $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, meant to address issues like food insecurity in communities most impacted by the pandemic.

City Manager Eric Batista, who’s overseeing all ARPA decisions, previously told GBH News that Worcester’s application review process would prioritize smaller organizations that have struggled in the past to secure grant funding. But although some of the ARPA money recently went to newer groups trying to expand, others were left out — an exclusion nonprofit leaders worry comes at the expense of the people, often of color, who would benefit from their services.

“This is what the system keeps doing,” said Derrick Kiser, who did not receive any ARPA money for his nonprofit Fresh Start, which provides mental health counseling to at-risk youth and young adults. “The same system continues to feed the same organizations and the same people.”

According to a GBH News review of publicly available tax data, more than 60% of the total $11.7 million in ARPA money for projects and programming was awarded to larger, more established organizations with at least $400,000 in annual funding.

In an interview, Batista argued the city carefully considered all of the 140 applications and awarded the money fairly to a diverse array of groups. He said organizations that didn’t receive any funding will have opportunities in the future to secure city grants.

‘Pure neglect of a community’

Worcester received $146 million in ARPA funds in 2021. Then-City Manager Edward Augustus appointed residents to committees that would review applications for some of the funding. At the urging of local activists, the city held multiple rounds of community outreach to seek feedback on how to make the awarding process fair and equitable, then hosted workshops to walk prospective applicants through the process.

When Kiser applied in the fall last year, he saw the ARPA money as an opportunity to expand his nonprofit Fresh Start, which has served more than 300 people since its founding in 2018. Kiser has used his experience as a former Worcester gang leader to help formerly incarcerated people assimilate back into society and sway youth to leave gangs. But his annual budget has usually been no more than $150,000, which makes it hard for him to broaden his reach.

With the help of the Seven Hills Foundation, Kiser filled out three separate lengthy applications for the ARPA money to help fund different programs at his nonprofit. Each application was for $250,000, the maximum organizations could request for a programming initiative. Although he’s struggled in the past to secure other city grants, Kiser said city officials had told him Fresh Start was the exact type of nonprofit they’d prioritize for pandemic relief money.

“We would use that money getting two case managers to help assist [clients], provide them with life skills, communication skills, financial literacy ... de-escalation skills,” Kiser said. “And then literally transportation,” bringing them to jobs.

But the city rejected all of his applications with no explanation why.

A man sits at a table looking at the camera.
Derrick Kiser uses mental health programming to help youth and young adults stay out of the criminal justice system.
Sam Turken GBH News

Charles Luster also was hopeful. His organization, 2Gether We Eat, employs hydroponic farming to provide fresh produce to lower-income families across the Worcester area. But Luster said although the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce completed his application for him, he was also denied funding.

So was Dan Ford, whose nonprofit trains homeless and other underprivileged young people how to restore cars so they can pursue that work as a stable career. Ford previously tried to convert a vacant Worcester manufacturing building into a youth community and vocational hub, known as The Bridge. But after Ford lost out on a bid to purchase the building, he settled on a new plan to expand his auto repair shop into a job training center with apartments for homeless youth.

“I know what it is to sleep in an alleyway overnight, freezing cold with a leather jacket and some jeans on,” said Ford, who spent about a decade in and out of homelessness while growing up in Worcester.

He thought the ARPA funding could help jumpstart his project, so he hired an experienced grant writer to help him apply. He said he was disappointed but not surprised when he received his rejection letter from Worcester in February.

“It’s business as usual for [the] city of Worcester. ... It’s a slap in the face,” Ford said. “It’s pure neglect of a community.”

Nelly Medina, a local community organizer who founded the social justice nonprofit Free Worcester, said the ARPA funding decisions exemplify the city’s favoritism of deep-pocketed organizations over small, younger ones often led by people of color. Medina believes Worcester’s marginalized residents lose out when the smaller organizations representing them aren’t given a chance.

“The grassroots efforts that are coming from the people on the ground are the ones that are scoffed at,” said Medina, whose group did not apply for ARPA funding. “These organizations that were looked over are some of the most respected in the community. ... It’s a huge injustice.”

Concerns about equity

In a February memo to City Council, Worcester City Manager Eric Batista said his administration received over 140 applications requesting more than a combined $40 million in funding, far more than what was allotable. In response, Batista said he slightly increased the ARPA money available for the applicants “to provide additional funding in support of these critical projects and programs.”

Still, considering the high demand for the money, nonprofit leaders and activists question why so much of it went to larger organizations with deep budgets. For example, UMass Chan Medical School has received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and research funding in recent years but was awarded $225,000 in ARPA money for its Lifeline for Kids program, which helps children recover from trauma.

And Worcester Community Action Council, which works to address poverty across the region, received the maximum $250,000 in ARPA programming money even though the organization secured more than $40 million in total funding in 2022.

Worcester Community Action Council Executive Director Marybeth Campbell told GBH News she agrees with people’s frustration about the ARPA decisions. In fact, she considered not applying for the money because her organization already benefits from being large and well-established. However, she ended up submitting an application to use the ARPA money for a universal basic income pilot program, in which 50 families will receive direct cash payments for a few years.

"It's business as usual for [the] city of Worcester. ... It's a slap in the face."
Dan Ford

Officials at UMass Chan deferred to the city for comments about the ARPA funding decisions. Batista and Worcester Chief Development Officer Peter Dunn said the ARPA review committee appropriately accounted for the size and background of applicants. They added the city tried to award organizations the amount of money they asked for, as long as it didn’t significantly exceed their current budgets.

“Let’s say if the organization has an annual budget of $50,000 and they request $250,000, then maybe that impacted them in terms of the realisticness of being able to accomplish that and manage that amount of money,” Dunn said.

Activists and nonprofit leaders said these doubts about smaller organizations’ ability to manage grant funding are typical among Worcester officials and the greater philanthropic community.

But the ARPA money is meant to be used creatively and has more flexible requirements, said Ben Wood, a senior director with Boston-based Health Resources in Action, which works to make philanthropy more fair. He noted that if the city had doubts about some applicants’ capacity to manage money, it could have hired a consultant to help them.

Instead, Wood and activists said Worcester’s consideration of the size of applicants’ budgets could have resulted in larger organizations with deeper pockets automatically qualifying for more money over smaller nonprofits. Some city councilors agreed Worcester officials didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to use the ARPA money for organizations that usually struggle to receive funding.

“The process wasn’t set up to be equitable,” City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj said. “It creates a mistrust between community and our local government.”

She and Councilor Khrystian King said city officials’ next step should be to review and analyze the ARPA decision-making process to avoid the same pattern with future grant money. Haxhiaj added the city needs to “remedy some of the hurt and harm that was caused.”