When Ken Hackett graduated from Boston College with a business degree in 1968, he expected to work in the corporate world, handling big money accounts, maybe at the phone company that employed his dad.

But a spontaneous decision to instead join the Peace Corps led Hackett to the career from which he's retiring in January, running Catholic Relief Services, an institution with a nearly billion-dollar-a-year budget and 5,000 employees worldwide. On paper that might look like he wound up where his education pointed him, but the reality is far more interesting.

"This is much more complicated" than working in a U.S.-based business would have been, Hackett told Catholic News Service during an early December interview in his Baltimore office. "There are many more stakeholders, the stakes are much higher. And getting it right --- doing it right --- is much more important."

Hackett will overlap a short time with his successor, Carolyn Woo, 57, dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and a CRS board member.

Hackett, who will turn 65 Jan. 12, got to the top of CRS in 1993 by a route that started with trying to grow new strains of cocoa and corn in rural Ghana with the Peace Corps and brought him to CRS four years later. His first years with CRS involved helping run a program to promote breast-feeding and some nutrition and agriculture projects in Sierra Leone.

His career track took him throughout Africa for the better part of two decades and to the Philippines in the late 1980s. His assignments included running CRS's relief program during Ethiopia's devastating famine of 1984-85 and heading CRS operations in East Africa during Somalia's civil war in the early 1990s before he moved back to CRS headquarters in the U.S.

As he prepared to retire, Hackett looked back at an adrenaline-filled career of trying to help the victims of catastrophic events: hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, famine, floods, war and genocide.

Despite the enormity of those relief efforts, what Hackett singles out as probably the most significant accomplishment of his tenure has been the change he made to more intentionally base everything CRS does in the principles of Catholic social teaching.

The ah-ha moment that led to the shift was the Rwandan civil war of 1994 and the genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people dead in 10 days of tribal-based violence.

"We'd been working there for years," Hackett said. "We knew about the tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but we weren't doing anything about it. We were building schools and doing micro-development loans," without paying attention to the simmering race-based hatred around them.

Rethinking the CRS philosophy meant shifting from thinking of the agency as one of many nongovernmental organizations involved in relief and development work --- owned by the U.S. bishops, to be sure, but operating without any practices that particularly reflected its Catholicity. Hackett looked to undergird that work with the philosophy of always trying to build up human potential through partnerships.

"We became less about effective development and more about 'right relationship,'" Hackett said.

CRS got there with the help of fellow Bostonian Father J. Bryan Hehir, a theologian who now heads the Boston Archdiocese's Secretariat for Health and Social Services and a faculty member at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"Bryan Hehir helped us think through how we internalize the principles of Catholic social teaching and how that forms and affects an agency of 5,000 people," Hackett explained.

In practice, that means peace-building programs are now a part of CRS work all over the world: from trying to prevent tribal-based violence during droughts in East Africa to providing teens in El Salvador with the skills to resist the lure of drug gangs. That means, in Congo, making sure a micro-loan program exists for women who were victims of rape.

He told of visiting such a program, where 20 women and a few husbands talked about the community cash box in the middle of the circle, from which they operate a loan fund among themselves.

"What was important was the environment," Hackett said. "It was a support group for people who'd been through the same kind of psychological trauma."

In another example, new homes for victims of Haiti's 2010 earthquake are built somewhat more slowly through CRS out of a calculation for working with local people, he explained. Once immediate survival needs were met, the project to build permanent homes involved local people making decisions for their own community, not just outside benefactors stepping in and handing over completed housing that might not be suited for what the local people need.

"It's about engaging people, respecting them," he said. "We've learned a lot about how to respond in emergencies, about taking the time to engage and let people do things for themselves."

That's not to say that providing the best of relief and development services isn't a CRS priority.

"You've got to be the best if you're going to affect people's lives," he said. "You've got to be the top of the mark."

Hackett jokes about how his own resume as a new college graduate wouldn't even get a second look at CRS these days, because there's such a deep pool of skilled employees running CRS programs around the world.

And CRS is consistently ranked by independent agencies such as the American Institute of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Times as among the most effective charities in the nation.

"I think Catholics can be proud of this agency," he said.


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