The National Catholic Review
Carolyn Woo takes the reins at Catholic Relief Services.
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Some things about Carolyn Woo are very “un-Chinese,” as she puts it. Joining a debating team as a teenager coming of age in Hong Kong was “a very un-Chinese activity,” she says. And her career in strategic planning? It was “an unlikely field for a Chinese person when I was young,” she says.

Perhaps Ms. Woo’s exposure to Maryknoll sisters from the United States, who educated her throughout her childhood in Hong Kong, had something to do with it. Even as a child she was impressed by the faith, creativity and enthusiasm of the sisters. “They were always joyful; they had great humor and great spirit,” she remembers. “Things were always fun, and they were not easily intimidated.”

Ms. Woo watched the Maryknoll sisters build schools and clinics and find ways to support the Vietnamese boat people then landing in Hong Kong. “The word cannot does not exist in their vocabulary,” Ms. Woo says. “When I look back, I think, ‘What entrepreneurial people.’ Every time there was any type of barrier, they found a way to overcome it and actually lead to a better outcome.”

Her experience with the Maryknoll order proved a lifelong inspiration. She devoted herself to understanding and promoting that entrepreneurial spirit as a student, then as a professor at Purdue University and, since 1997, as the Martin J. Gillen Dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. This month, she will bring what she has learned about entrepreneurialism into a new role when she replaces Ken Hackett as president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services. Mr. Hackett is retiring after 18 years at the helm.

Ms. Woo expects to bring her entrepreneurial expertise to her new job. “My role,” she says, “has always been looking at the future and seeing how an organization could be better positioned to be successful.” Ms. Woo says she has done that not only on the job at Mendoza but also as an advisor to corporations and not-for-profits and as a long-time member of the C.R.S. board of directors.

“Catholic Relief Services is a well-oiled machine in terms of day-to-day operations and its ability to deliver humanitarian relief,” says Ms. Woo. The agency is great “heads down,” working in disaster response and poverty mitigation in the field. The agency could benefit, she thinks, from someone who remains “heads up, looking at the major changes in our environment…to think about how do we need to position this organization, what new capabilities do we need to develop or restructure in the most optimal way to support the people’s work in the field?”

Thomas Harvey, the director of the Nonprofit Excellence Program at Mendoza, calls Ms. Woo “a woman of great compassion and drive.” He describes her as “intuitive and insightful; she can see what’s going on and she’s often a few steps ahead of other people.” This is a skill that can appear like micromanaging, Mr. Harvey says, but “the balance is she really relies on teams.” At Mendoza she has learned that “you don’t have to be afraid of rigor; you can demand excellence and still be liked,” Mr. Harvey says. She also learned how to turn around a faltering academic program. Mr. Harvey attributes the survival, indeed the flourishing of his program to Ms. Woo’s energy and determination and not least of all her fundraising skills.

A Workday for Everyone

That last skill obviously will be of use in her new position. Catholic Relief Services already has proven itself, Ms. Woo says, as one of the more entrepreneurial relief and development agencies responding to humanitarian crises and fighting poverty around the world. Over the last decade the organization has grown from a $200 million dollar operation to a $1 billion humanitarian juggernaut. But entering an era that likely will include federal budget constraints and reduced disposable income among its bread-and-butter supporters within the Catholic middle class may be challenging.

Maintaining the level of support Catholic Relief Services needs for its many overseas commitments in this difficult environment will likely require the development of new skills, Ms. Woo says, and an ability to find new sources of revenue when government wells run dry. She believes the organization is well positioned to survive a period of consolidation and austerity. During such periods, she says, funders, both public and private, are often willing to support only the most reliable humanitarian actors. “C.R.S. is extremely well respected and is known for its fiscal stewardship and its ability to achieve positive outcomes no matter how complex” the situation, Ms. Woo says.

Noting that Ms. Woo is the first head of Catholic Relief Serviceto to come out of the business world, Gerald Powers, the director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, says Ms. Woo will “bring a new perspective to managing and promoting what is a large, complex global organization.” He expects, however, that she will continue Mr. Hackett’s commitment to a strong Catholic identity at the organization. In fact, her personal spirituality is among the professional tools she has come to rely on.

“I always try to remember: Do your very best, and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit,” she says. “Sometimes now before I go to work at Notre Dame, I start at the grotto, and I say, ‘Blessed Mother, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, today is a workday and we all have to show up for work.’”

Ms. Woo grew up in a swirl of cultural influences during a time of tremendous dislocation and change. “I lived in Hong Kong, one of the most capitalist cities in the world, and I was raised in the Chinese culture but educated by Americans,” she said.

She watched Hong Kong grow from a sleepy fishing village in the 1950s into a dominant economic powerhouse. Adjusting to such dramatic changes and the at times contradictory forces that accompanied them, she says, created “a sense to trust in God, trust in the Holy Spirit, trust that whatever problem we are presented with is actually an opportunity, an invitation.”

Tough Call

Mr. Powers says that at Mendoza Ms. Woo pioneered the integration of ethics into the business curriculum and developed innovative programs on social entrepreneurship and corporate social responsibility. “The business school under her leadership has served the Catholic community,” he says, by working with Catholic charities and hospitals around the country. Internationally Mendoza now connects its M.B.A. students with efforts to promote social change or heal traumatized societies through field study guided by the U.N. Global Compact. That international policy initiative commits international businesses to accountability for the broader social good in the communities they affect and to efforts to promote human rights and protect the environment.

Ms. Woo’s decision to accept the job offer from Catholic Relief Services took six months of discernment, mostly because she found it difficult to break with the colleagues and staff she worked with at Mendoza. Her new role will be far removed from the life of a university dean.

In relief work, Ms. Woo says, “you need to move very quickly; it’s a high velocity environment.” The work requires good decision making over a short period of time in complex and volatile situations. Then during the post-disaster period, when the focus shifts from saving lives to restoration and reconstruction, she says, a completely different set of organizational attributes is required. “Relief work is not over as soon as you put shelter on top of a person and they can be fed and [given] medical care,” she says. Their homes have been destroyed; their livelihoods taken away. “What about the rest of their lives?”

Responding to the tsunami in southeast Asia in 2004, which devastated coastal areas in nations all along the coast of the Indian Ocean, required a long-term plan. “Not everyone should stay or could stay there for such a long period of time,” Ms. Woo says, “but we did, to see through the whole reconstruction.”

Restoring Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2009 has likewise required a long-term restoration campaign. The real work, Ms. Woo says, “actually begins after relief, so the key is how do we then respond to the new set of needs…. How do we sustain this work, particularly when it has a long-tail response? That is one of the strategic challenges to embrace. It has implications for funding; it has implications for new skills.”

Catholic Relief Services is one of the few major relief agencies still active in Haiti. “It is a very difficult reconstruction environment,” Ms. Woo says, “and it needs patience and...a lot of expertise and partners on the ground and on the site.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Woo expects that the organization will have its hands full with “normal” emergency responses to typhoons and earthquakes and conflict. The frequency of such disasters seems only to increase, she says. And there will be unexpected humanitarian challenges like the nuclear mess engendered by the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan. The ongoing crisis in Fukushima has required unwelcome innovation in disaster response.

But disaster relief is not the agency’s only focus. Its global role in economic and community development has increased in importance in recent years. “It’s a different type of work,” Ms. Woo says, “agricultural projects, mapping farmers into the supply chain for large companies, education projects in Pakistan, peace and civil society building work.”

As she steps into her new role in Baltimore, Ms. Woo will focus on another area: the scope and effectiveness of the agency’s outreach to U.S. Catholics. How well has Catholic Relief Services used its experience and expertise to engage, inform and inspire U.S. Catholics, she asks. “I would say at this point,” she says, “that I would consider it more of a huge opportunity for us rather than a momentum we have established.” Many Catholics may be familiar with the C.R.S. rice bowl, but she wonders how many understand all the work that cardboard icon represents. She is particularly eager to engage young American Catholics and hopes to offer them more background on Catholic social teaching and to explain how C.R.S. brings that tradition to life through its many efforts.

Full Circle

Mr. Harvey of Mendoza calls Ms. Woo’s success as an immigrant to the United States a tribute to the Maryknoll women who traveled halfway around the world to help “liberate and educate” girls like her. “Now she has opportunity to do the same on behalf of developing communities around the world,” he says.

It is a symmetry that Ms. Woo also notes. “I was born in Hong Kong to parents who chose to leave China because of the Communist government, so in some ways I was born to refugees; Hong Kong was a city of refugees.” Her appointment, she suggests, signals missionary work that has now “come full circle.” The American church sent the Maryknoll sisters across the world to help a generation of children disoriented, like their parents, by the rapid political changes that drove them to an emerging metropolis. “I was the beneficiary of their work,” Ms. Woo says, “and today I am to lead the humanitarian relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.”

This is the “whole idea of the global church,” she says, and an expression of the opportunities life in the United States and the U.S. church has offered to her. Her personal success and the talent and skills she returns to the church through this new role, she says, are the “fruit of the missionary work of the Catholic Church”—work she is committed to continuing as she moves from South Bend to this next important chapter in her American journey.

View a slideshow of the work of Catholic Relief Services.

Kevin Clarke is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Charles Erlinger | 1/7/2012 - 1:11pm
This is a great issue overall, and this article certainly helps to make it so.  You folks have started 2012 very impressively.

One suggestion:  persuade or allow some of  your contributors to put a little more depth of rationale into their stated positions.  For example, I suspect that Fr. Kavanaugh could have beefed up his article very persuasively.
Bill Collier | 1/6/2012 - 4:16pm
CRS is one of the Church's true treasures (and so is the Maryknoll order). Ken Hackett provided excellent stewardship at CRS, and we can hope and pray that Ms. Woo will do the same. I already like her work ethic: "Blessed Mother, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, today is a workday and we all have to show up for work.”