Five Questions With: Joseph DeSantis

When Tri-Town Community Action Agency and South County Community Action Agency decided to merge almost three years ago to form Tri-County Community Action Agency, a lot was riding on the merger.

The combined agency would provide a wide range of services to more than 22,000 Rhode Island residents who needed the support. In the early 2000s, Tri-Town CAA had helped guide officials at South County CAA from the brink of financial collapse. With the 2016 merger, it was hoped the combined agencies entity would be stronger together than apart.

Nearly three years later, Tri-County President and CEO Joseph DeSantis spoke with Providence Business News about the outcome of the merger.

PBN: In October 2016, Tri-Town CAA and South County CAA merged, creating the Tri-County CAA. Each of the original entities served smaller regions of Rhode Island.  Tri-County now covers both regions, including parts of northern Rhode Island and all of Washington County. What prompted the merger?

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DESANTIS: Back in 2000, the R.I. Auditor General approached Tri-Town about management issues and a financial crisis happening at South County Community Action. We were called on to consult with SCCA, to replicate what we were doing at Tri-Town and to help get the agency back on its feet. After consulting for a couple of years, Tri-Town became the parent organization of SCCA. For many years, we operated with two separate boards of directors, separate policies and financial structures. Through the years, the duplication of efforts made less sense and a merger became the obvious solution to ensure administrative efficiency and financial stability. Sixteen years later, we officially merged the two entities.

PBN: You’re nearly three years post-merger. What does the agency look like now?

DESANTIS: Tri-County CAA has evolved into an agency with a very strong and centralized administrative infrastructure that has resulted in increased quality, improved program outcomes and increased financial efficiencies. With one board of directors representing all communities served, we are better able to focus on the strategic-planning process, including our annual-needs assessment. The needs assessment reflects the demographics and the needs of the communities served – localized – and focuses on the merged organization’s mission, vision, values and guiding principles.

Additionally, with streamlined processes and universal policies, the agency is better equipped for data collection and reporting in all programs – each has one department director post-merger. Outcomes, annual reports, branding and continuous quality improvement are now reflective of the agency as a whole and not of the two separate regions, as was the case in 2016. We remain committed to the individuals and families that we serve, no matter what name we serve under.

PBN: Tri-County serves two very different geographic areas of the state. You have locations in northern and southern Rhode Island. Do residents of these two areas have the same needs, and how do you prioritize or designate finances and resources?

DESANTIS: Currently, Tri-County programs serve over 20 cities and towns throughout Rhode Island, or roughly half of the state. The needs and demographics look almost identical in each geographic region, with some differences – lack of transportation options in Washington County, for example.

Overall, services are the same, but occasionally a program or service is already offered by another community organization for a particular region. Instead of duplicating efforts, Tri-County makes every attempt to partner with these organizations to refer individuals and families. For example, in the northern part of the state, Tri-County operates two federally qualified health centers. In Washington County, an FQHC already existed, so for residents in this geographic location, we refer out for health services.

We know the needs of the communities we serve, and if we can’t offer the program or service, we partner with the agency that does. We have developed great partnerships over the years on the local level to ensure we can respond to the needs of our families. Finances and resources reflect the level of need within a geographic location and are often determined by grant funding.

PBN: What are your plans for the future? Will Tri-County continue to maintain all locations, programs and services?

DESANTIS: With almost 40 years of experience as the CEO of a community action agency, the focus is on being proactive in addressing needs and making every effort to plan for the future, with input from the executive management team, program directors and with approval by the board.

The CAA world is highly unpredictable with changes in state, federal and local government, shifts in funding priorities, change in need in local areas, and even catastrophic events. To a certain extent, we can predict for our future and that’s what the strategic-planning process is all about.

Over time, we have seen the need for program focus to shift, and we respond accordingly. We are prepared to stay aggressive and will provide the programs and services that are needed by our families, in the locations that show the greatest need, while ensuring that the agency remains financially sound.

PBN: If you had to go through the merger again, what would you do differently?

DESANTIS: Looking back, I would have accelerated the process. We were overly cautious and sentimental. Once the merger was complete, we saw how quickly and positively programs responded to increased operational efficiency. Communication increased as a result of merging the boards and senior leadership. Strategic planning as one agency allowed for sharper focus and goal setting. Now that we are merged, we are able to put more focus onto statewide advocacy efforts with a stronger voice. If I had to do it again, I would have merged five years sooner.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at