Busted: Kerry Robinson

The young director of the Leadership Roundtable makes the connection between faith and best practices

BustedHalo: How did you get involved with Catholic causes?

Kerry Robinson: My work on behalf of the Catholic Church is by sheer accident of birth; my family has a history of Catholic philanthropy for 65 years because of the generosity of my great grandparents, John and Helena Raskob. My great grandfather was a classic “rags to riches” story; he was an immigrant who eventually conceived, built, financed and owned the Empire State building. He was also involved with Pierre S. DuPont; he was on the executive committee of GM and was chairman of the Democratic National Party when Al Smith (first Catholic presidential candidate) ran in 1928. John Raskob consoled the devastated and defeated Al Smith by making Al the president of the Empire State Building.

The beginning of their foundation occurred when their son and heir apparent, Bill Raskob, died suddenly in an auto accident when he was a senior at Yale. My grandfather, who knew the first Catholic chaplain at Yale, set up the Bill Raskob foundation to honor his memory and as a way to handle the family’s grief. Later, it evolved more formally into the Raskob Foundation and my great grandparents wanted two things: that all of their resources would be used to advance the Catholic Church’s many apostolates globally and they wanted their children and descendants to be stewards of those resources.

As a young girl, I was exposed to the work of the Catholic Church on local, national and international levels. More importantly, I was meeting lay women and men and ordained and religious women and men doing profound work often in very horrible circumstances. Again and again, these women and men I met had a groundedness, a palpable sense of faith and a joy and were alive in a way I didn’t see elsewhere. And I wanted to be like them. I knew the institutional Church and the Catholic faith had an important role in their formation.

I was enchanted with the world of philanthropy and completely swept up in terms of the positive role that the institutional Catholic Church has played, particularly in this country in education, health care, welfare, concern for the poor, social justice.

Today, over a hundred of my cousins, on a voluntary basis, meet several times a year to review hundreds of requests for financial support from the Raskob Foundation for Catholic apostolates from all over the world.

BH: You eventually moved over to the fundraising side, right?

KR: About 10 years ago, the newly appointed Catholic chaplain at Yale, Fr. Bob Beloin, contacted me and asked me to be Development Director of the Catholic Campus Ministry in charge of a fundraising effort. I was vehemently opposed to accepting this position as I didn’t want to be paid to raise money. I had preconceived notions about what fundraising entailed. But Fr. Beloin asked me to not answer him right away, but to pray over it for five days. And to my utter astonishment, five days later I said yes.

Our first goal at Yale was to raise 5 million dollars. I didn’t have any fundraising background and only knew philanthropy and the mind of donors, so I knew the starting point for the Yale Catholic Ministry effort was to ensure that the ministry was worthy of generosity. So I insisted on a fierce and passionate adherence to mission and to expand that mission as faithfully and fully as possible. I maintained that when we were effective at that, money would follow mission.

Ten years later, we raised $73 million dollars, and built a 30,000 square foot student center. But my goal was to raise the bar for Catholic campus ministry, not just to give Yale another thing to boast about. So we focused on programmatic developments; to elevate and celebrate Catholic intellectual discourse on Yale’s campus. We took topics of the day and illuminated them from the perspective of faith. I’m most proud of the fact that we introduced 14 new initiatives on Yale’s campus in terms of Catholic campus ministry.

BH: This was before the sex abuse crisis?

“I believe that yearning for something we can?t give voice to is part of our human nature. For me, Catholicism makes sense of this yearning particularly in our young adult years. The Catholic Church must learn how to respond and to speak a language that will be effective with young people.”

KR: Yes, suddenly in the midst of this campaign, the sex abuse scandal broke and students were asking “Why”, “How could this happen?” “How can we make sense of what is happening?” And Fay Vincent, who was on our board at Yale, suggested that we answer the students and play to our strong suit which is intellectual life, the world of ideas. That led to a three-day conference that we raised money for and planned. It was called “Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church.” Over 500 people attended, we had 130 speakers from around the country. It was a very gutsy thing to do but it was faithful and it was important.

It was 3 months later that I met Geoff Boisi at a FADICA meeting (FADICA is a consortium of Catholic foundations and donors). And he was a special guest invited to address the board and how he was trying to make sense of all that had happened. He wondered how we could come to the assistance of the Church we love. And everything he said mirrored what we were doing at Yale and so we started to work together and I was recruited to be the first Executive Director of the Leadership Roundtable.

BH: It sounds like you’ve inherited some of the spirit of your great grandfather.

KR: I never knew him. I was born after he had died but he had a profound impact on my work and my professional life. David Farber is writing a biography of my great grandfather and has full archival access to his papers and diaries and periodically he comes to foundation meetings and gives us anecdotes and vignettes so we have an image of this man. And one document that Farber read to us about a year ago was from a letter my great grandfather wrote to a bishop in June, 1929, in which he mentions that he will fulfill the bishop’s request for financial assistance and then goes on to say that “the more I think about it there must be a scheme that includes the lay and ordained to promote best practices and excellence in the management, finances and the personnel development in the Catholic Church.”

He knew that priests were not trained in finances, accounting, management and personnel but that laity were and their expertise could be used. And I was astonished and the very mission statement of the Leadership Roundtable was really written by my grandfather in 1929!

BH: As a young Catholic, what do you see for the future? How do we move forward?

KR: If we don’t do anything, we run the risk of the Catholic Church becoming irrelevant to young adult Catholics. If we fail to involve and include young adult Catholics, many of whom are extraordinary in their education and insights and invite them into real leadership positions in the Church, the whole Church will be impoverished. Another byproduct of the Leadership Roundtable’s work is to elevate and recognize these young talented Catholic leaders.

BH: At BustedHalo we often talk about the relevance of faith and how people today may be spiritual but not religious. The Church can be a bit of a hard sell especially since the onset of the abuse crisis? Do you still have hope in reaching out to young people?

KR: I believe that part of human nature is this yearning for something we can’t give voice to. For me, Catholicism makes sense of this yearning of this restlessness, particularly in our young adult years and hopefully leads us to a sense of peace and transformative union with God. That desire for meaning, communion will never go away. The Catholic Church must learn how to respond and how to speak in language that will be effective with young people.