For a Catholic organization serving throughout the world for more than 70 years, one would not expect awareness of it and its work would be a concern.
Yet, according to Joe Cottrell, the data he received from Catholic Relief Services noted “that only one in six church-going Catholics, when asked about international relief organizations, mentioned Catholic Relief Services. Fewer than one in six church-going Catholics could identify Catholic Reliefs Services or the work it does.”
Cottrell, who described his family as “longtime supporters of CRS,” said, “Catholic Relief Services is one of the jewels of the Catholic Church, yet no one seems to know about it.”
How you can help
He and his wife, Kathy, Art and Mary Ann Wigchers, and Tom and Lynne VanHimbergen have set out to change that. More than 18 months ago, they asked, “What would help us raise awareness of Catholic Relief Services?” in a brainstorming group they had assembled. That session surfaced more than 40 ideas, according to Cottrell, from which they developed a four-point plan – in Cottrell’s words, “areas where we could make a difference” – and in which the three couples personally invested a dollar amount “in the low six figures” to execute it.
The first two points were input from and interaction with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Bishop Donald J. Hying and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s director of CRS and coordinator of social justice ministry, Rob Shelledy, and identifcation of 15 “major parishes,” according to Art Wigchers, to contact for opportunities to make parishioners and school children aware of CRS and its work.
The third point involves advertising on billboards, in the Business Journal and Catholic Herald, and on radio. The fourth point – “to get better marketing ideas,” Wigchers said – was executed with the help of Jesuit Fr. Nicholas Santos, assistant professor of marketing in the Marquette University College of Business Administration, and students in his classes, and Patrick Kennelly, director, of Catholics for Peacemaking at MU. (See related story below).
As part of its awareness campaign, the three couples, working with Emerald Isle Marketing PR, enlisted the help of Catherine Hicks, devout Catholic and actress who starred in the hit TV show “7th Heaven,” and Bonnie Blair, five-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist, to promote CRS.
During what was billed as an appreciation event for more than 250 CRS supporters on Sept. 9 at the Wisconsin Club, Hicks noted the impact of CRS.
“The thing about CRS is that it’s everywhere,” she said, noting it serves in nearly 100 countries, including Kosovo and Darfur.
Hicks termed herself a “big advocate of using celebrities for the cause,” noting that if PR and press coverage can raise awareness, they should be employed.
“We’re all challenged to come up with new and better ways to have everyone care about Darfur,” she said, adding that while everyone can’t go to Africa, everyone can write a check.
“It doesn’t take much. As Catholics, as Christians, Christ was all about the poor,” she added.
Blair, a member of St. Anthony on the Lake Parish, Pewaukee, said she was “excited to be lending my name” to CRS, describing it as “a charity that tugs at your heart once you learn more about it.”
“One of the things that I felt so connected to, and why this is such a great thing is the fact that it’s not just taking a case of water somewhere and saying, ‘We know you need water.’ To me, being able to teach somebody and to give them the tools … being able to have that fresh water, and giving them the tools to be able to do it themselves so that they can have it forever,” she said, reiterating what she says in CRS radio ads.
Blair continued, “Being involved with this organization, I can raise awareness, especially to this area, and hopefully through the U.S. and knowing (the problems are) something we can touch worldwide.”
Carolyn Woo, executive director of CRS, told the gathering, “We are representing all of you in the world. People know our name – CRS. People say, ‘These are the American Catholics.’ That’s what they know us for.”
She added, “We are there not because they’re Catholic. We are there because we are Catholic. We are there because Christ told us that order to love him, we had to love our neighbors.”
Developing awareness elsewhere
The Milwaukee area effort, according to the Cottrells, Wigchers and VanHimbergens, is serving as a pilot for what could become a national CRS awareness effort.
According to Joe Cottrell and Art Wigchers, the awareness effort could get tested next in the archdioceses of St. Louis and Chicago. They and Tom VanHimbergen have met with Woo and her staff in Baltimore to discuss possibilities.
“CRS wants to replicate this elsewhere,” Wigchers said.
In his remarks at the appreciation event, Archbishop Listecki said, “As Catholics, we should be singing the praises of CRS to our neighbors, letting them know exactly what CRS does, and pounding our chests about the good work they do.”
He added, “It’s up to us to be the salesperson – to donate, but also to get the good word out.” Brian T. Olszewski, Catholic Herald Staff