When the disability services nonprofit Melwood landed a major contract with Fort Meade in 2011 — its largest in 50 years — the group saw its success quickly become a liability.
Suddenly the charity, which finds employment for people with disabilities, had a 30 percent bigger budget, more staff and 100 additional clients.
“When an organization grows to a certain size, more sophistication in the executive suite is required,” said Donald Donahue, chairman of Melwood’s board of directors.
Then-chief executive Janice Frey-Angel sustained the organization through the recession. But as Frey-Angel stepped down last spring, the charity — known for its car-donation program — needed savvier business expertise, clearer branding and stronger contingencies for looming federal budget cuts.
After searching for nearly a year, the board found Carol Ann DeSantis, whose career has taken her through media, health care, government, business and philanthropy.
“When they sent me her background, my jaw literally dropped,” Donahue said.
DeSantis got her start in journalism. An aspiring author, she became a reporter and eventually an editor for Delaware Today magazine, covering social, women, children and housing issues. One of her first stories, she said, detailed the misfortune of a young boy who was wrongly incarcerated.
“That got me interested in what was going on in social services,” DeSantis said.
Tired of a meager paycheck, she jumped into public relations and found herself in the health care industry representing companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield as well as hospitals. She remembers cuddling babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and watching surgeons perform in the operating room.
But what really got her thinking about a career in health care was the night she found herself on assignment at a community hospital. In rushed a gunshot victim. Typically such patients are sent to a nearby trauma center, but doctors decided they needed to start treatment right away, causing a longer wait for others, including a heart attack patient.
“It really made me think about how choices are made,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis began working her way up the ladder at the hospital, and eventually rose to vice president of corporate development, where she helped establish an endowment to pay for expanded services. She raised the initial $5 million, allowing the hospital to treat a wider group of patients while starting preventative health programs for low-income people.
She ran for a seat in Congress, but lost. So she began consulting, and eight years later accepted an invitation from then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to lead the state’s Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families. At the time, the department was tangled in lawsuits, union issues and dealing with the deaths of children in foster care.
“It was a mess,” DeSantis said.
She began a system to track the progress of the department’s finances, customer service and employee performance, and gradually the agency got back on its feet.
“When she came, the department was in significant debt. We were $50 million in the hole,” said Henry Smith, who served as a director under DeSantis. “That was a challenge she wanted us to address, but not by taking a meat ax and start cutting. She wanted us to really transform our service … to make it better.”
It may be why she is confident to take the helm of a charity that is facing possible cuts in government contracts because of sequestration.
About 80 percent of Melwood’s revenue comes from about 40 government service contracts that employ people with disabilities to do custodial and landscape work at government buildings.
While Melwood is currently assessing the possible impact of sequestration, DeSantis said she plans to look for other sources of revenue, including donations from individuals and foundations. The organization created its first development office and has begun planning major fundraising events. The organization’s first gala in 50 years is slated for November.