News and analysis
October 13, 2015

American Jewish World Service’s Leader to Step Aside

American Jewish World Service
As chief executive of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger increased annual contributions from $2.8 million to $60 million and is credited with calling attention to the genocide in Darfur.

Ruth Messinger, who transformed the American Jewish World Service into a fundraising powerhouse and became one of the most vocal human-rights advocates on hot-button issues like the genocide in Sudan and gay rights in Uganda, announced today that she will step down from the job this summer.

An insider, Robert Bank, who is now executive vice president of the international human rights and anti-poverty nonprofit, will succeed Ms. Messinger as president.

Ms. Messinger started at the organization in 1998, after serving as a New York City Council member and as Manhattan borough president.

Over the course of her tenure at the charity, she has worked to increase its annual donations from $2.8 million to $60 million last year. She is widely credited with bringing the genocide in Darfur to the attention of other nonprofits and U.S. policy makers and in recent years has secured her group’s place as a leader in the fight against child marriage and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Beginning next summer, Ms. Messinger, 74, will assume the title of global ambassador. Her duties are still being worked out, but she said that she will focus both on working with Jewish nonprofit and religious leaders and reaching out to leaders of other faiths who are concerned about global human rights.

"There’s strength in numbers," she said. "Not only are we constantly building our constituency among the various Jewish communities but we’re making common cause with Christian, Muslim, and other faith leaders who care about these issues."

Messages to Donors

Other nonprofit leaders said the American Jewish World Service, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in November, has excelled at recruiting and supporting committed civil-rights activists in places like India, where it has concentrated much of its child-marriage work, and Uganda, where it has worked to fight anti-LGBT legislation, to speak directly to American donors. For example, the nonprofit frequently invites civil-rights leaders from the developing world to speak directly with donors in the United States. Grantees, including Ayesha Khatun, director of the Mohammad Bazar Backward Class Development Society, a nonprofit that runs schools in India for girls, tell their stories on the service’s website.

American Jewish World Service
Ms. Messinger praised the decision to promote executive vice president Robert Bank to replace her, saying, "He’s been part of every decision. He’s been part of every dollar raised."

Sam Worthington, president of the InterAction, a membership organization of nonprofits that work around the globe, says American Jewish World Service, has been "unique in that they give a voice" to the world’s poorest people.

‘Power and Moral Clarity’

A big reason the organization has grown over the years, according to Ms. Messinger, is that it attempts to appeal both to donors who are called to philanthropy by a sense of religious devotion and to secular Jews motivated by a desire for social justice.

"We’re clearly an organization that believes that working to realize human rights and to end poverty in the developing world is an extraordinarily Jewish thing to do," Ms. Messinger said.

A survivor of the full-tilt environment of New York City politics and longtime Bill Clinton backer who had gained entree into the upper reaches of the policy-making establishment, Ms. Messinger was instrumental in placing a spotlight on the war in Darfur in 2003, said Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College and international activist.

"She projected power and moral clarity" he said. "You don’t want to be in her way. That’s what Darfur needed."

Role Model

Over her career, Ms. Messinger has served as a role model for other nonprofit leaders.

Stosh Cotler, chief executive of Bend the Arc, a domestic social-justice organization, said that like the American Jewish World Service, her group tries to attract support from both secular and religious Jews. "Most of us in the Jewish social-justice space look up to her as a mentor and an icon," she said.

Ms. Cotler said she was "thrilled" that Mr. Bank had been named to succeed Ms. Messinger because he has an intimate knowledge of the organization.

"He’s been part of every decision," she said. "He’s been part of every dollar raised."

A native of South Africa, Mr. Bank was chief operating officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, before joining the American Jewish World Service in 2009. He studied piano at Juilliard and earned a law degree from City University of New York School of Law.

Mr. Bank said that over the next 18 months the organization will evaluate its current strategic plan, which ends in 2017. He said he did not envision making big changes and praised the group’s board for making a "strong commitment to continuity."

"There is a deep connection between the lessons of Jewish history and the people we are supporting in the developing world," he said. "We draw upon those lessons every day."

Send an email to Alex Daniels.