CRS head uses organizational savy to tackle challenges

June 1, 2012

To someone unfamiliar with her formation as a Catholic and her adventurous nature, it might seem that Carolyn Y. Woo made a big leap this year when she left a deanship at one of the top business schools in the U.S. for the presidency of Catholic Relief Services — an organization that does development work in some of the world's poorest economies.

But in fact everything in Woo's life — from her primary and secondary education by Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong to her academic research on strategy, entrepreneurship, innovation and organizational systems — has prepared her to take over the leadership of CRS, the international aid agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

During her June 4 keynote speech at the Catholic Health Assembly in Philadelphia, Woo will talk about how her life's journey led her to the role she said she feels called to fill.

Woo, 58, took the CRS helm in January after serving as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Under her leadership, the school's endowment grew significantly and the undergraduate school of business advanced from relative obscurity to being named the country's top-ranked program three years in a row by Bloomberg Businessweek.

During her tenure as dean, Woo served on the CRS board for six years beginning in 2004. She did so along with Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, CHA's president and chief executive officer, who remains on the CRS board. Sr. Carol said CRS and the church are fortunate that Woo chose to leave her prestigious academic post in order "to commit herself to do everything she can to make the lives of the most vulnerable people on Earth better.

"She truly believes CRS is one of the great treasures of the church" and working with the poor "is where the church ought to be," Sr. Carol said of Woo.

As head of CRS, Woo leads an agency that consistently ranks among the nation's most efficient nonprofits. Some 94 percent of CRS' annual budget, which reached as high as more than $900 million in recent years, goes directly to programs. Its 5,000 service providers work in nearly 100 countries serving more than 100 million people from drought victims in Niger to earthquake survivors in Haiti to AIDS patients in Thailand. In addition, CRS is a first responder to natural disasters, and its staff often work in nations suffering from sectarian tensions and violence.

While serving on the CRS board, Woo traveled to Indonesia after a tsunami, and to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Kenya. She met people in desperate need of services, and of hope. What she saw in the field reinforced both her conviction that CRS is doing essential work of the Catholic Church and the fundamental lessons of faith and human compassion she learned as a Chinese school girl under 12 years of tutelage from the English-speaking Maryknoll Sisters of Ossining, N.Y.

Catholic education
The sisters encouraged Woo to reach her intellectual and human potential, and they helped her to apply for a scholarship to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Woo mustered her courage — she had to overcome her father's reluctance to let her pursue a college education, particularly so far away from her family. Woo got the scholarship and earned her undergraduate degree, becoming the first woman in her family to do so. She went on to earn a master's and a doctorate in management from Purdue.

In a commentary published in the web edition of National Catholic Reporter, Woo wrote that "ÔCan't be done' was not part of the Maryknoll Sisters' vocabulary. With their lives, the sisters challenged those they taught to not just pursue personal goals, but to serve and to claim others as brothers and sisters." Through example, they also taught their students to approach their lives with joy, humor and a sense of adventure.

Woo took it all to heart, especially the part about rising to new challenges.

Uncommon excellence
"My expertise is certainly not in international development; every one of my (CRS) colleagues knows more about this than I do," Woo told Catholic Health World. "But I've always been a strategy person and an organizational development person. It's not good enough to care about the common good. You've got to do your work with uncommon excellence. In order to have uncommon excellence, you have to have your processes and systems to be the best, the most efficient. You also want to be sure you're innovating. Doing things the three-years-ago way is not sufficient. And you want to make sure the direction you're going aligns with the external environment."

The big picture
So, while CRS staff stay focused on delivering quality programs in the field, Woo will apply herself to developing the agency's big picture strategies. Sustainability is one of her watchwords — both for the organization and the projects it engenders.

She cites CRS' post-earthquake reconstruction work in one neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as an example of the organization's approach to sustainability and problem solving.

When a group of neighbors came to CRS last year asking for help in rebuilding their homes, the response led to the creation of a locally owned business. Before the homes could be rebuilt, the rubble had to be cleared. There were no bulldozers available for that work, but even if there had been, the neighborhood was on a steep mountainside, inaccessible by road. The CRS solution involved hand-cranked rubble crushers. The agency trained a local man to turn rubble crushing into a business.

"And then that entrepreneur hires seven people for two shifts, so in that little zone you've already created 15 jobs," Woo said. The sand and gravel has value — CRS buys it to mix with cement to make concrete to build shelters. "Now you've pumped some money into the economy and we don't have to import the sand and gravel. Not only did we address this problem, but we created jobs and a product. We're always looking at multiple dimensions," Woo said.

Success opens other opportunities too. For example, when CRS lays pipe to bring clean water to a remote area in a poor underdeveloped country, "women and young girls won't have to spend four hours of their day getting water," Woo said. "What will we do with those four hours? Are we talking literacy training? And what are the social issues that have to be addressed in order for that school to be endorsed by that community? And just because you have water, doesn't make life better. You have to teach hygiene. We think about all of those things.

"It is efficiency, but it's also a value system," said Woo. "We always recognize that those resources aren't coming to us, but through us."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.