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Why Daryl Messinger Can’t Get Enough Volunteer Leadership

by Leading Edge

Meet Leading Edge’s new board chair in this welcome interview.

Leading Edge is thrilled to welcome Daryl Messinger as the new chair of our board. Daryl served on the Leading Edge board for four years before becoming chair as of January 1, 2023. In addition to a private sector career, Daryl has also served on (and often chaired) the boards of a number of Jewish nonprofit organizations, including (most recently and prominently) chairing the board of the Union for Reform Judaism, and being the first woman to serve in that role. Throughout these leadership roles at many organizations, she has cultivated a reputation as a dynamic leader with a track record of sustained involvement and success.

We asked Daryl to give us a sense of how she sees Leading Edge’s work, the landscape where we’re operating, and how her experience and viewpoints fit into them.

Can you talk about why volunteer leadership seems to be a real passion and calling for you?

We have one scarce resource: time. So, very early on in my professional life, I made choices about where and how I wished to invest time. If an organization or cause warranted my time and focus then, I wasn’t willing to just warm a seat. I needed to be willing to step up into leadership roles. The key for me is to choose who I want to work with and to make sure we share the same passion for the mission and direction of the organization. There are many worthy and important volunteer roles in organizations. For me, I came to understand that I had a needed role in leading and mentoring others.

What motivation keeps you persisting in your volunteer leadership path? What keeps the fire lit?

People, people, people. It’s all about relationships. I like being in relationship with lots of different people. I enjoy the networking aspect, the chance to have roles in many different organizations of different sizes and types. I was in highly analytical jobs earlier in my career. Compared with those jobs, volunteer leadership allowed me to have many more relationships with people from different backgrounds and with different stories than my own. We often narrow down our worlds to the colleagues where we work, and our busy family lives, and this kind of work has broadened my relationships.

And then, I’m also in this for the meaningful, purposeful missions in the Jewish community. You can “find people” in lots of places, and lots of those places have meaning and purpose, but my main engagement has been Jewish because I wanted to have a focus on where I put my time. I could put my energy into any number of causes—for instance, climate, racial justice, food insecurity—those things are all important to me, but I have always wanted to do them with and through the Jewish community.

What first motivated you to get involved with Leading Edge?

First, I’m motivated by the problem Leading Edge is addressing. How do we ensure that Jewish nonprofits attract and retain outstanding leaders? Given my experience leading several different types of Jewish nonprofits, I was particularly aware of the sector’s broad need to focus on talent and culture. Few individual organizations have the resources to do this and I was intrigued that major funders had both the foresight and the generosity to want to do this for the sector. 

Second, I’m motivated by who is working on the problem; I want to work and partner with exemplary leaders. Gali Cooks and the entire Leading Edge team are folks that I am super excited to work with and learn from. And we have a board that understands how to work at the right level—bringing expertise, experience, and deep knowledge without getting in the weeds where the professionals are. The Leading Edge board is packed with these attributes and the members truly appreciate that the role of the board is to provide strategic and generative leadership.

How have you seen the Jewish nonprofit field changing over the past decade?

We have many more on-ramps to Jewish life. Relatedly, we also have many more small organizations—very few of which scale. Funding models in that patchwork of organizations are also shifting along with social changes. For example, membership models are becoming seen as suspect.

Field-wide, there is an increasing recognition that talent and culture matter and that the “people people” are important in that equation. Along with that, we have seen a sense of momentum around the professionalization of the Jewish communal field—but that isn’t necessarily reflected in the compensation. 

Compensation is related to a different problem: affordability of Jewish life (to use a technical term) sucks. On the one hand, we want to attract great talent but on the other, there is a need to keep communal services as affordable as possible. The result is that wages often do not keep up with inflation. 

What is your philosophy of leadership?

First: Shared leadership. There needs to be a real partnership between the board chair and the CEO. In old power models, that relationship was hierarchical, but I think of this as two partners who each have a different job to do. And then, leadership goes beyond those two people as well, in the sense of what Joe Kanfer [another Leading Edge board member] calls “the leadership molecule.” There should be a set of people dynamically sharing ideas, abilities, experiences, expertise, and ultimately leadership.

Second: Have strong opinions, loosely held. I grew up in a household where my father was a volunteer debate coach. We grew up learning that we had to present our ideas in their strongest, best-argued forms. And we also learned that to make the best argument, we needed to understand why someone on the other side would think we were absolutely wrong. We needed to be able to articulate both sides of an issue, not take the disagreements personally, and be open and willing to change our minds.

Third: I try to find and surround myself with smarter, kinder, and differently experienced folks and empower them to lead. I’ve always opted to be in environments and teams where I knew for certain I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. That’s not just effective, it’s fun!

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