US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The business of helping people: Carolyn Woo on running an international relief agency

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As president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, Carolyn Woo brings a strong sense of leadership and vision to the organization, which was founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops to provide international relief and development assistance. With a background in strategic planning and the experience of serving as dean of a major Catholic business school—the University of Notre Dame’s acclaimed Mendoza College of Business—Woo also brings a sharp business acumen to running an agency dependent upon the support of others to carry out its work.

In these excerpts from the interview we conducted with her for our May 2013 issue, Woo discusses business ethics, funding challenges, and passing on the faith.

How did you become interested in studying business?

My academic training was in strategy. There are very few people who specialize in strategy and strategic planning. I was 21 years old when I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in strategy, although I don’t know why I did it. It was a new field, people didn't know much about it and neither did I.

But it was the opposite of my undergraduate major, which was economics. I wanted something really broad, but it might not have been the best major for a person without experience. I grew to love it though. And now my role and my contribution to CRS is to make sure that we are strategically on track and that we are organizationally healthy in fulfilling our mission.

Having worked at a Catholic business school, how important do you think it is to teach ethics and values to business leaders in today’s world?

Development cannot take place without business, because in the end, business is there to create jobs. They don’t only create a market for products, but behind the products are people and talent. If there's no market, there's no place for exchange, and we will be tending to our own little plot somewhere.

Even in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI says that business by itself is not good or evil. It is really the moral energies of the people who run it. The bottom line is the moral energies of the leaders. That's why at the Notre Dame business school our whole focus was on ethics and values, and then on excellence. Both are essential—we really believe in business, but we really believe in the people who run business too.

People know Notre Dame as the number one undergraduate business program, and it is, which is quite an achievement. We were not the oldest or the best known business school, but we didn't start out to be the best known business school. We started out to be the best in forming young people with the type of skills and values that would really allow business to make its contributions to the world. We emerged as number one, but the focus was always on the importance of values.

What role does faith play in business?

You can't just believe in something. You have to have courage and commitment to it.

That's the role of faith, being able to access a calculus which is just more than the worldly calculus, that there is a sense of belief in God and accountability to God. But at the same time, you have to be very good at what you do. As Father Theodore Hesburgh said, "Mediocrity is not the way we serve the Blessed Mother." I completely agree. Just because we are good-hearted doesn't mean that we should be second class. In business, the potential is so high for it to do wonderful things, but it's the people who make that happen.

I think this is also a generation of consumers who want it both ways. They want low cost and high quality, but at the same time they expect the company they buy from to abide by some ethical credo. That they don't want to contribute to the abuse and the exploitation of people, but they enjoy their coffee or whatever it is. They don't really want to have a sense that the business participated in some exploitation.

They expect the vendors to not exploit people, yet, at the same time, they're not willing to pay more for that more ethical practice. I also do believe that it doesn't necessarily cost more to do the right thing. I think business is under a lot of pressure to do the right thing, and that's wonderful. The bottom line really is that it all depends on the leaders.

And does having leaders who do the right thing depend on how we educate them?

It's not just education. I think there is a whole faith formation role. I think that the humanitarian impulse of people is there; it is part of our evolution. I think that there is a desire to do good, but wanting to do good is not the same as doing good. I think that the link between wanting and doing is a difficult link. There is something else that needs to be there. I think it's the belief in God, a belief in something that transcends a worldly calculus that allows people to take the leap from wanting to doing. The type of engagement that allows people to know what is right or wrong; there's always some need for that.

Your background must be a big help for CRS when it comes to the business end of the organization. Can you tell us about how CRS is funded?

CRS’s budget ranges from more than $700 million to more than $900 million. In times of emergency, there's usually an influx from individual donors. But in an average year, 85 percent of our grants come from some type of competitive proposal process. About 65 to 75 percent of it comes from the U.S. government, basically from aid which has a poverty focused theme.

How much would potential government spending cuts hurt CRS?

I would say every year we worry about the cut in budgets, because the cut in the budget usually affects programming that goes to very poor and very vulnerable people. It deals with issues where vaccinations may not be given, various type of medications for HIV/AIDS may be stopped, food aid for children and for pregnant women may be cut.

The type of poverty focused aid that we're talking about is about 0.6 percent of the federal budget. We try to educate people about that, and the number one thing is to explain that there is a moral obligation. A budget is a moral document. If we make cuts to these areas, we're not just dealing with the quality of life. This really has a major impact on whether people live and also the developmental status of their health—mental, intellectual, physical, and so on.

What are the benefits for the government in supporting your work?

There are two other reasons why that the U.S. government gives aid: Clearly one is humanitarian, but another one is the peace dividend.

We know from other research that the causes of conflict are three: extreme poverty, extreme inequality, and corruption. At least extreme poverty can be dealt with in some ways. There's a stability issue, too. We now know parts of the world that are the poorest are also breeding grounds for rebel movements, so there's a peace dividend from providing aid there.

There's also an economic dividend. For example, the continent of Africa was probably the second highest growing continent. Africa itself has a lot of economic prospects.

But the part we work on, the poverty focused part, is 0.6 percent of the budget, so there’s not a lot to cut. Now, with this sequestration, they are talking about possibly a 5 percent cut in that budget. It will have an impact; less so on CRS in some ways, but a lot on the people we serve.

Are you working on developing alternate sources of funding?

All the time. I mentioned that about 85 percent of our funding comes from competitive grants. Only a part of that comes from the U.S. government, so we're always cultivating major foundations, other government bodies, the United Nations. There are other big institutional donors.

We also work a lot on our church donors, whether it's through the annual giving program or through major gifts. We always work those other avenues. We're doing a lot more work now which is to engage very, very small and very poor farmers, and to see how we could move them into the market system, so that they could sell their produce on a more reliable and a higher price basis to the large companies, large supermarkets, and large retailers. Because if we could succeed in doing that, it would allow farmers to move out of the very vulnerable tier that they're in.

In doing that work, we also look for the support of big business, which in some ways would have an interest through what we call the "value chain" to engage very poor people. That's also a source of revenues that is not about philanthropy. It is about the desires of business. There are some businesses with a desire that by their action, their sourcing action for example, they understand the good that can be done for the very poor.

But the very poor are not ready to all of a sudden become suppliers. You can't just be an individual farmer with two or three acres of land and overnight be a supplier to Walmart or to Green Mountain Coffee. There's an issue of the quality of the crop, the quantity of the crop, the consistency of the crop, and so on. Big companies don't buy from many different little farmers, because the transaction cost is too high.

We also work to engage this group, farmers and others, to be able to develop the level of performance and reliability that could allow them to become a steady supplier. We do that work, but, in the process, we also work with large companies and their grants to do this work. So we're always looking at multiple ways of sourcing our activities.

How can Catholics in the United States help to support the work CRS is doing?

They could help in many ways. One is just to pray for us, because that makes them a part of our work and makes us feel the power of the Holy Spirit and their prayer.

The next thing, even before we talk money, is advocacy. Think about how important it is if large numbers of people write in to Congress and say, "Do not cut aid to the poor." That is really noticed. That kind of advocacy is very, very important to our work.

The third thing is that we have many programs for parishes: encouraging CRS Rice Bowl, hosting CRS speakers into their parishes, programs for high schools and confirmation classes. People can support those programs too.

We develop a lot of resources. We try to make it as easy as possible but people have to use them. We have a program called Helping Hands, which is a big food packing program for particular countries. Right now it's being done for Burkina Faso. People can organize one of those and become a part of that.

Then, of course, any type of contribution is not too small. As you can see there are many different ways, and we actually develop many resources, which is not all about fund-raising.

You mentioned the CRS Rice Bowl program. Can you explain how that works?

The CRS Rice Bowl is a faith formation program that stresses the meaning of Lent for families. We create a set of stories, explanations, graphics and cultural practices to help U.S. Catholics identify with their brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. We bring to life the challenges that these individuals face and how we can bring God's love to them through prayers, meaningful sacrifices, and ways of experiencing the culture.

CRS Rice Bowl has been redesigned so that there's more of an educational and engagement element. It is a program one can start with kids to associate with Lent and then build from there. When they're small they’ll say, "There's that rice bowl. There's that funny thing." When they grow older, they ask, "What is that funny thing about?" Then hopefully when they go to college, they don't abandon it. They don’t abandon Halloween or Valentine’s Day or Christmas. Why would they abandon the Rice Bowl for Lent?

In addition, we also encourage people to assist the poor and live their faith by engaging in Catholics Confront Global Poverty ( This website provides information on the policies and legislative actions that impact the poor. We invite people to learn about these issues and to advocate for the poor. We make it as easy as possible—you don't even have to know your senator's name. You just have to go on the website, click on your state for your senators and representatives, and “send.”  

Do you think teaching children about the work of CRS is a way to help pass on the faith?

Having a sense of God is very important. When we raise our children, we pass on what we think are the most important aspects of life: discipline, kindness, capacity for love. I think for those of us who know the importance of faith, bringing our children up to have a sense of God is critical.

This is not just an individual one‑on‑one experience. There is an institutional component to it. It takes a community backed up by institutions. The institutional infrastructure of the church is not just an accident; it developed over millennia to carry out and carry on the works of faith and the work of faith formation. What is bringing up a child in the faith without sacraments, as God becomes part of life through the sacraments? Catholic education, Catholic health care, and so on are forms of serving that makes God's love and presence real.

With respect to institutional infrastructure, some people underestimate its importance, saying "Eh, I can live with that or live without that” or “I don't like the people running it.” Can you imagine how faith is passed on without institutional infrastructure?

CRS, as an institution of the church, not only provides service but demonstrates our commitment to live our faith and to witness to the saving power and all encompassing love of God. It is in this context that we engage the next generation to understand this call from God, to see adults answering this call, to learn how this is done and imagine themselves in this mission, and ultimately to step up. For these reasons, we are reaching out to children in U.S. parishes to help them develop their faith through our work to serve the people we claim as family. 

This is a web-only article that accompanies "A world of difference" which appeared in the May 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 5, pages 28-32).

Image: Photo by Jean-Philippe Debus/Catholic Relief Services