Catholic Relief Services Director Talks About the Business of Charity

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carolyn woo

Recently named one of the “top 500 most important people on the planet” by Foreign Policy magazine, Carolyn Woo took the reins in 2012 as head of Catholic Relief Services, headquartered in Baltimore.  As the official Catholic international humanitarian aid organization, (Catholic Charities is domestic) Catholic Relief Services has over 5,000 employees in 91 countries serving more than 100 million people annually. Its mission  — based on need, without regard to race, nationality or religion — is to “promote human development by responding to major emergencies, fighting poverty, and nurturing peaceful and just societies.” With annual revenues of $823 million, CRS is currently 39th on the Forbes list of the largest U.S. charities. Its offices, at 228 W. Lexington Street, are in what was once Stewart’s department store.

Dr. Woo came to CRS from the University of Notre Dame (not to be confused with Notre Dame of Maryland University on Charles Street) where she served for 12 years as the Dean of the Mendoza College of Business. While there, she brought the undergraduate business school up to its current number one ranking (Bloomberg Businessweek) while maintaining its Catholic mission. Her expertise in the areas of corporate strategy, entrepreneurship, and management bring a new, more financially-based perspective to the enormous and far-reaching charity.

Dr. Woo has an interesting personal story as well. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she attended a Catholic school run by the Maryknoll Sisters, American nuns who devoted their lives to overseas service.  Influenced by these women, she came to America against the wishes of her family, having raised on her own the money for one year of schooling. She attended Purdue University, where, after the first year, she won a scholarship for international students, and graduated with highest honors with an undergraduate degree in economics.  She stayed on at Purdue to earn a masters degree and a Ph.D., as well.

In 2004, she became a board member at Catholic Relief Services and, as a result of her travel and experiences as a trustee, was inspired to accept in 2012 the job as its president and CEO.  She has recently moved to Baltimore, but spends “a great deal of time” on the road. Her husband David Bartkus, an IT consultant, still lives in South Bend, Indiana. They have two grown sons, both graduates of Notre Dame.

We spent some time with Dr. Woo to learn about Catholic Relief Services, her job there, and what she has learned along the way. 

Your background is in academia, not international aid.  What has been the biggest adjustment?

 I can name three. The first is not being an expert on the core activities of the organization.  I am learning how to turn to others to get what I need to do my job. The second is living away from my husband. We have known each other since I was 18. He’s a great support for me, and being apart requires us to fashion a different way of connecting. The third is that the stakeholders for my job here at CRS are broad beyond description. There is the church, there are our corporate donors, our private donors, the 11 sectors of our organization – which range from agriculture to peacemaking to human trafficking — as well as all the beneficiaries of our service. Sometimes it feels like the whole world!

Is that overwhelming?

No, it is simply about relationships. About managing relationships. I look at each one as an invitation to grow in grace.

Why did you come to CRS?

I joined the board of CRS in 2004 and being a board member changed my life. Traveling all over the world, seeing the joy of the beneficiaries and the commitment of the workers was, I don’t know how to say this – just awe-inspiring. And then in 2011, a study we commissioned revealed that there was a need for repositioning the organization (Catholic Relief Services). Basically we were facing a crisis. The environment had changed…

What do you mean by “the environment”?

All the things we don’t control. The economy, the political world, the church – everything was changing fast, and we were not keeping up. Because my area of expertise is strategy — why organizations succeed or fail, get trapped or move forward – I was asked to become more involved. We need to train new leaders for this new environment, and I have been teaching leadership for a long time. This is my most important teaching job.

Can leadership be taught?

I do not believe that there is a certain type of personality that is characteristic of leaders. I do believe there are some manifestations of leadership. Those are 1. An insistence on excellence – knowing what excellence looks like and putting a high value on it. 2. Passion. Being a leader is not an 8-5 job, and there is no such thing as “that is not in my job description”. 3. The ability to generate trust, which I need to say, is not the same thing as being liked. A big part of engendering trust is knowing what you’re doing. I once in Australia watched the “leader” of a herd of cows stampede into the ocean, where they all drowned. 4. Integrity. The people you are leading must believe that you are doing it for them, not for yourself.

Is there a difference in being a leader at a non-profit organization than at a for- profit?

Leadership is not different, but the goals are different, and so evaluation is different. At a for-profit business, the target is to make money. Everyone understands that. At a charitable organization, it is less clear – the primary goals may be different for different people. Are we trying to teach the lessons of the church? Are we trying to grow as an organization? Are we trying to alleviate hunger? Disease? All these things are important. Not-for-profits now are being held to a level of accountability even more severe than for-profits. And it’s harder to demonstrate success.

How do you prioritize relief efforts in a world where so much help is needed?

There are three factors we use in prioritizing relief. The first is big emergencies – for example a tsunami, an earthquake, a crisis like Syria, involving mass displacement of people – the sheer immensity of a disaster. The second is an invitation from the United States Conference of Bishops to intercede. It receives requests from Catholic bishops around the world, and it believes we are called to serve in a given situation, we go. The third is based on our values and our areas of expertise. There are many relatively quiet emergencies, famine in the Sudan, for example, which are enormous. It may not be a hot-button issue, but we have been in the Sudan for 50 years, and have perhaps a unique understanding of the problems there. We are committed to these ongoing relief efforts.

Is there one foreign aid initiative that is particularly close to you personally?

In 2003, then President George Bush established PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. This is its 10th anniversary, and we are on the verge of meeting goals set then. For example, we are close to zero generation of HIV transmission from mother to child. What I respond to, besides seeing such measurable success, is realizing how much was involved in that achievement. There was so much to learn! We learned that medication was not enough, that nutrition played a huge role. Many of these countries in Africa were experiencing famine — so people were helped to grow crops. Then, once they began to live with HIV-AIDS in significant numbers, they had to be helped to make a living. There were factors like orphan protection, education, access to medication clinics, roads, mobile clinics… entire health systems had to be put in place. It was truly a holistic endeavor, an integral human development scenario. Haiti, after the earthquake, was another area of multi-dimensional response. What appears at first to be a medical crisis, is actually so much more that giving out the drugs.

Have you had an opportunity to meet Pope Francis?

 Yes. I met the Pope in June at a meeting of Catholic agencies in Syria. We met at the Casa Santa Maria, where he lives, and he spoke to thirty or forty of us. He spoke in Latin, and I do not speak Latin, so I just watched his face…you can see so much there. What is so extraordinary is that he has changed the (world) conversation in less than nine months — he was Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year”! And he didn’t do things in a traditional “heroic way.” He was no Mandela. He didn’t take a bullet. He is just a person who exudes love for all, and mercy for the poor. The world is so hungry for that.

How would you sum up your life philosophy in one sentence?

The cup is not half full, or half empty; it is completely full, if we will take it.

When did you define your most important goals and what are they?

 In 1996, I was attending an executive development program. The idea of “a calling” was under discussion and I think I responded to that, to the concept that “there is work to be done and it has my name on it.” I think it was at this point that I started to clarify my goals, which are: 1. Be good at what you do. 2. Be responsible – don’t let people down. 3. Learn not to compete, so that you can “be” for others. People don’t want to be led by competitors.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

I would tell them the three things that I told my own sons, advice that applies to any field. 1. Know your blessings. 2. Develop your blessings. 3. Use them to serve others.

What’s been the hardest adjustment to life in Baltimore? The nicest surprise?

The nicest surprise is how walkable it is. I can walk everywhere! The hardest adjustment is that my grocery store, a lovely Fresh & Green market, is closing.

It will be like a hole in my life!

Why are you successful?

 Because I was blessed. (I believe in blessings rather than luck). I have a good brain. I received a good education. The church. All those things. And my husband.  I would not be 1/3 the person I am without my husband.

What is the best advice you ever got?

 First, when we don’t get what we want, God gives us something better. Second, whatever the problem – turn it over to God.  Third, and this is important, “emotions make for bad acoustics”.  Meaning that they can get in the way of hearing, of listening. Sometimes we women trust our emotions too much…

What was the worst? And did you follow it?

No. I didn’t follow it. It was “act like a man.”

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

 1. How transformative love is. 2. How little we really need to live. 3. That we are placed on this earth with certain people for a reason. We need to enjoy each one of them.

What is the best moment of your day?

First thing in the morning when I wake up. I have recently started swimming, so I go for a swim. I listen to a video, and I often read a meditation from The Center for Action in Contemplation.

What’s on your bedside table?

My Bible, a book of reflections called Give Us This DayThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the biography of Carole King, and The Saint’s Guide To Happiness.

You strike me as a woman who has followed Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to “Lean In

You know, I don’t like the idea of leaning in. I think we all find our own best path. Personally, I have worked like the dickens since I was little, I am so looking forward to leaning out.

You mean retirement?

 Yes, although I am completely passionate about my work.  Recently, I was applying for “global entry,” and they were trying to take my fingerprints. Well, they couldn’t get them, my fingertips had worn off! The man asked me if I do a lot of typing! It was a reminder to me of all the things I have not done.

Like what?

Well, I would like to take piano lessons again. I would like to learn to sew, to make things with my hands. I want to take drawing lessons, because I do not have a gift for it. I read once that drawing is about seeing. I would like to learn to see in a different way. I have always been analytical and task-oriented, now I want to do things that are not about that, to see what it is like.

When will you retire?

I don’t know. Or rather, I do know, but I won’t tell you!

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  1. Wow — what a terrific article and interview — I loved the thought-provoking questions! And what an extraordinary woman and leader! I would love to hear her speak sometime. Maybe we could organize a lecture somewhere? Thanks, Cynthia and Fishbowl for introducing us to such a talented role model!

    • Thanks Millicent, yes she really was inspirational. A couple of times in the interview, I found myself with tears in my eyes …

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