With the impending retirement of longtime president and CEO Ken Hackett, Catholic Relief Services announced June 24 the somewhat surprising choice of Carolyn Y. Woo to head the international humanitarian agency.

Woo, who will take the helm of CRS on Jan. 1, 2012, has served as dean of the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business since 1997. Her extensive background in business and academics gives her a much different perspective than her predecessor Hackett, whose resume included two decades in the field with CRS before his 18-year tenure as president. 

Woo, however, is no stranger to CRS. She was a member of its board of directors from 2004 to 2010 and has a clear passion for the agency's work. 

Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Woo about her new role and her vision for the future of CRS. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What is it that attracted you to the work of Catholic Relief Services? 

Carolyn Y. Woo: It is very simple: the fact that [CRS] is so very effective in attending to the most vulnerable people on earth. 

OSV: Coming from such a strong background in business and academics, what do you think you bring to your new role with CRS? 

Woo: I think it is very clear that I am not an international humanitarian relief expert. In fact, the organization has a deep and broad bench of very talented and very experienced people who are extraordinary in dealing with international relief. So what I bring, I would describe in two ways.

First, I would say this is an organization which is very busy in responding to needs. Everybody is "heads down," working very hard. And I think the role that I play is being "heads up." It is to look at the next five to 10 years and what are the major changes in the environment and what are the expectations of our benefactors. What type of work do we need to do more of or less of? What type of core competence do we need to develop? How do we structure the organization and the relationships so that we could be even more effective in dealing with more complex work?  

The organization is very busy doing the daily work, and someone needs to step back and look at how we can be even better prepared for the continuous changes in the environment. So it is a "heads up, heads down" [approach]. 

Another way I would characterize it is that our people are very busy taking care of the needs of the people [we serve], so it would be my role to take care of the organization. 

OSV: What do you see as being some of the challenges on the horizon for CRS in the countries it serves, and how do you hope to be able to address them? 

Woo: Some of the major challenges will include changes in the donor environment. The U.S. government is a major benefactor, so we must deal with the various economic issues and also all the political divisions within the U.S. government, and we need to be prepared for that.  

Another division of the funding environment is changes in the type of donors we have, a shift in the emphasis of where resources will be coming from. 

On the "doing" side, we are now moving into much more complex and integrated work. We've gone from just doing relief work to doing a lot of rebuilding work, rebuilding the capacity of the society for economic independence, for a civil society, for education. 

So, the second major change is that the nature of our work is much more complicated, it is much more comprehensive, so we need to take a look at what type of capabilities we need to cultivate in order to do more of that work. 

The countries we are working in are in Africa and Latin America; they themselves are going through a lot of changes: economically, politically, in terms of their social demographics. So we need to be prepared for that, too.  

So, while we are busy today doing good work, we need to be thinking of how we can build up the right organization with the right capabilities to address tomorrow's challenges. 

OSV: Do you anticipate changes in CRS's role in the U.S., in terms of raising your profile and educating people about the work you're doing? 

Woo: The objective is not so much to raise our profile so that we will be well known, the more important thing is that CRS is the arm of the U.S. Church in living out the mission that Christ left us, and that is to love our brothers and sisters.  

And so our work is to translate that particular teaching to tangible actions, and while we're at it, effective outcomes for the people we serve. So the work of CRS needs to be known because it provides a witness that we are doing the work of God.  

This is not an empty call from Christ for us just to ponder in our minds, it calls for a very active response on our part, to use our gifts, our talents, our creativity, our education, our intelligence, our sense of friendship and community to actually formulate effective actions and outcomes. 

It is a very important teaching tool for Catholics in the Church, because I think once people see this, they will be inspired and they want to be a part of the work. So how we engage the U.S. Catholics to be part of this work is extremely important, and it is a great opportunity. 

OSV: It sounds like you are focused on promoting the Catholic identity of CRS. Will that be a key factor in your work going forward? 

Woo: Absolutely. We are the Catholic Relief Services, and I applaud the fact that we are often in countries that are not Catholic. We serve those countries not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. And we draw on funding agencies that are not explicitly Catholic. We're glad about that, too, because we need partners of all kinds to participate in these works of mercy and these works of friendship.  

But in the end, the deep foundation and the fountain from which we draw our own inspiration to do this work is Christ's teaching that "I am the vine, you are the branches." These branches need to be connected to the vine, and that's our mission. 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.