Caritas: one for all and all for one

Caritas communicators from around the world gathered in Rome in November to look at best practices, challenges and the future.

By Michelle Hough, Caritas Internationalis communications officer

When I told my mum I’d been offered a job by Caritas Internationalis (CI) in Rome four and a half years ago, she didn’t have a clue who they were. So I told her I was going to work for Cafod.

As an English Catholic, she’d heard of Cafod of course, the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales. There were often leaflets and collection envelopes at the back of our church and we collected money for them and learnt about their development work at school.

In a sense, I do work for Cafod. But mention Cafod to an Italian in Rome, where I live now, and no one’s heard of them. However, if I say I work for Caritas, everyone’s heard of them! You could also say I work for Caritas Indonesia, Caritas Lebanon, Caritas Papua New Guinea and many other organisations.

Over thirty communications officers from the Caritas network got to grips with the question of the Caritas name and brand and other thought-provoking issues in a two day communications forum at Caritas Internationalis’ offices in Rome this week.

Caritas Internationalis is the second largest aid network in the world after the Red Cross. It is a global confederation of 165 Catholic humanitarian and development agencies. Some of them have Caritas in their name, such as Caritas Mexicana, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, Caritas Germany; yet others don’t, such as Cordaid (the Netherlands), Secadev (Chad) and Catholic Relief Services (the US) – and of course Cafod. Some use our flaming cross logo, others don’t. But is it really useful to member organisations to show they belong to the Caritas network?

“When an organisation shows affiliation with a much larger network it’s very seductive to donors,” said Robb Montgomery, journalist and CEO of Visual Editors, at the forum. “It means the effects of their donations will be amplified.”

A number of people said that being part of the Caritas network and  brand was very useful in their emergency work abroad. And in fact, CI offers emergency and communications support and coordination in emergencies across the world to its member organisations. But domestically showing you’re a member of Caritas, wasn’t always thought to be that useful.

Trócaire is very big in Ireland so being seen to be part of Caritas domestically doesn’t help,” said David O’Hare from Trócaire, an Irish member of the confederation.

Trócaire, like a number of Caritas member organisations, such as Cordaid and Catholic Relief Services, have built up a well-known and trusted brand under another name in their own country. Adding the Caritas name or brand to these organisations’ initiatives would require time, money and a lot of thought and might just confuse people.

But in Scotland there are a number of Catholic agencies, said Val Morgan of SCIAF, so the link to the Caritas brand and through it Pope Benedict was a distinguishing feature for his organisation’s work in the eyes of Scottish Catholics.

Dian Lestariningsih from Caritas Indonesia said that it was difficult to brand with the flaming cross logo in her country, which is mainly Muslim. But the name Caritas is well known on the ground along with Karina, the organisation’s domestic name. “Caritas means disaster to Indonesians,” she said, referring to the emergency projects we do there.

For all of us who do communications in the Caritas network, there’s the constant challenge of successfully telling people about who we are and what we do.

The methods for doing this have changed radically over the past few years with humanitarian organisations making a shift from informing through traditional methods, such as newspapers and TV, to engaging with people through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

One journalist said, “If you’ve not got anyone tweeting on the ground in an emergency, don’t bother.”

And in fact, Pierre-Guillaume Wielezynski, head of web from the World Food Programme, told us that when the massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, he initially went to Twitter rather than CNN to see what the people on the ground were saying.

Social networks are a chance to get into a conversation with supporters, key stakeholders and donors. They offer a chance to post information quickly and easily from the far-flung places in which we work and allow people to feel more involved with what we do.

It’s a brave new world this one, especially to those of us who grew up with traditional media in which there was more of a tendency to check and correct information before sending it out. What if you tweet something that’s wrong or misinterpreted? A number of our organisations use social media a lot and said that seeing as honesty and transparency were essential to building a relationship with your audience you have to “fess up” and admit your mistake and make sure you do better in the future.

Providing information as quickly as possible is key to saving lives in Caritas’s work. Guy-Marin Kamandji from Caritas Congo reminded us of this and how it’s essential that the various levels of the Caritas structure, from the parishes on the ground, to the diocesan and regional offices and Caritas Internationalis in Rome work well together.

Over 400 people were massacred in northern Congo on Christmas day and several days after in 2008. Through the Caritas network, this information came out to the world at large immediately and lives of the injured were saved because help arrived quickly in remote Dungu Doruma. Meanwhile, Patrick Nicholson, head of communications at CI, was able to keep the information flowing to the international media and Caritas confederation over the Christmas period, making sure the world was fully aware of the killings.

This shows the essence of  Caritas’ network and why, despite our different names and looks, we join our forces to make a difference in emergencies and for development campaigns. We are a confederation of organisations but we are also a family. The communications forum provided us with new ideas and a new impetus to help our global voice be heard.

“The Forum provided a great platform for the different Caritas organisations to interact. The extensive diversity of Caritas organisations highlighted our strength as a network as well as indicating common and different challenges and opportunities,“ said Nina Hoeve from Cordaid.

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