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A rising tide

Lisa Fleming, Erica Dayton, Jennie Schaff, and Megan McDonald

You’d be hard pressed to name a philanthropic cause in the Greater Rochester region that has not benefited from local foundations founded by homegrown entrepreneurial leaders who left a legacy of generosity. Four of those foundations—Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, Farash Foundation, Golisano Foundation, and Paychex Charitable Foundation—have named a new generation of leaders in the last two years to steward their legacy of giving. 

All told, these foundations hold more than $440 million in assets, representing a tremendous potential to impact our community. Just what were the pathways these new leaders traveled before assuming their new roles? We set out to learn more about these dynamic women. 

Like the founders of the organizations they now lead, all of these women grew up in the area, and all are committed to ensuring their work provides optimal benefits to the communities they serve with passion. But the paths they took to get where they are today are remarkably different.

Jennie Schaff, CEO and President, Farash Foundation 

While growing up, Schaff thought she’d be a doctor. But through her volunteer work with children with disabilities and seeing the rehabilitation of a dear friend involved in a horrific accident, she witnessed the power of physical therapy. After graduating from Simmons University, she worked as a physical therapist at a school for severely disabled children. She became fascinated with the power of assistive technology and ultimately received a doctorate in special education and assistive technology from George Mason University

Schaff returned to Rochester and spent nearly fifteen years as a faculty member at Nazareth University. In 2018, she was named president of Jewish Family Service of Rochester. In 2021, a new opportunity came her way. She pursued the role of CEO and president of Farash Foundation because she loves a challenge, and it was an opportunity to see the flip side of being a grantee, something she had been throughout her career. Her new role is the perfect blend of her passions—education and the Jewish community. 

That passion was ignited by her mother, Isobel Goldman, whom Schaff calls her inspiration and mentor. “Her commitment to social justice and setting an example of what a difference one person can make had a profound impact,” says Schaff. 

Now that she has been in her role nearly two years, she has learned that it is extremely difficult to say no to organizations that are doing great work or have great ideas; they just aren’t doing work within the foundation’s scope of funding. 

Schaff believes that one of our community’s greatest challenges is that much of the good charitable work being done is fragmented. But she is hopeful and committed to ensuring the foundation is finding the best possible places to invest in supporting important work. 

“We try to consider the grantee’s experience,” she says. “How do we make ourselves more accessible to ensure that we’re hearing all the needs, not just those that might have the resources to best tell their story.” 

When Schaff is not working, you’ll find her with her family, which includes five children. She loves spending time outdoors, writing, and reading. 

Erica Dayton, Executive Director, Golisano Foundation 

Dayton, who stepped into her new role as executive director of the Golisano Foundation in June, was raised in Walworth and married her high school sweetheart. She aspired to work with animals while growing up but ultimately majored in public relations at St. John Fisher University. Dayton worked at the University of Rochester for ten years in grant-related work. “But I never got to see the work,” she says. That inspired her to take a “long shot” chance and apply for the job as grant manager at the Golisano Foundation in 2019. She got the job and helped implement a new system to manage grants. “It gave me a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the culture and mission of the foundation,” she says. Her new role also gave her an opportunity to gather facts for trustees by going to see the work they funded firsthand. She worked closely with Ann Costello, who retired as executive director of the foundation in 2023. She also believes that much of the community’s work is fragmented. “I am constantly trying to connect people and generate conversations that will spark synergy among human service providers,” she says. A grant from Golisano results in a strong partnership with the grantee. Stewardship of their gifts is paramount to their work. Dayton notes that the biggest challenge she faces is giving away funds in an appropriate manner to ensure optimal impact. 

Her grandmother Marden Rogers serves as her inspiration. “She was a real spitfire. She spoke the truth and stood up for what she thought was right,” says Dayton. In addition to her grandmother, University of Rochester’s professor of linguistics Joyce McDonough inspires her. “She is highly respected; she knows herself and what she wants.” 

The hiring process for Dayton’s new role was rigorous. “It helped me realize how much Ann had prepared me,” she says. “She is the greatest.” 

When not at work, you might find her at her fourteen-year-old daughter’s volleyball game, at her husband’s drag race, or spending time with her horse and dog. She is also an avid reader.

Megan McDonald, Executive Director, Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation 

She calls herself a “Rochester General” baby, a sure-fire sign she’s a local. She grew up in Spencerport and went to Clarkson University, where she studied computer science. Her first job took her to Burlington, Vermont, to work for IBM

McDonald returned to Rochester in 2008 with her son and started working for the City of Rochester in 2009. At the City, she started in IT but worked her way toward positions where she interacted with residents. She also served on the board of Urban Choice Charter School. After thirteen years, she decided it was time to try something different. 

When Don Whitney, the former executive director of Daisy, passed away in 2021, the family searched for a new leader. McDonald believes her deep knowledge of the city, as well as her experience as a board member for a charter school, helped her secure the leadership role. 

The biggest surprise about her new position? “I had to create my own village,” she says. “I’m a one-person office. But people are so generous with their time and wisdom. It’s clear that the foundations work as a team to share resources and raise all boats,” she says. And, like her colleagues, saying “no, not this time” to grantees is one of the toughest parts of her job. 

Patricia Leo, executive director of the Florence M. Mueller Foundation; Roger Gardner, past executive director and board member for Daisy; Justin Vigdor, counsel to the foundation; and Tom O’Connor, president of the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, all serve as her role models. McDonald underscores the importance of listening to the community and seeking opportunities to successfully build on all the good being done.

Lisa Fleming, Executive Director, Paychex Charitable Foundation 

Fleming is a local, born and raised in the town of Gates. Her grandfather was a knife grinder, a trade he learned from his father, who immigrated to the United States from northern Italy. He expanded the business by offering kitchen supplies and knife sharpening service at the Rochester Public Market. Lisa’s mom expanded that business. Her father, now retired, worked his entire fifty-year career with Wegmans

As children, Fleming and her twin sister traveled throughout Rochester, the Finger Lakes, and the Buffalo area with their parents as they sold their wares. “I met people from all walks of life, learned from them, and built connections with them tied to food, family traditions, and more. I saw how hard my parents worked to build and grow their business. These years were the foundation of my professional life and have played a significant role throughout my career,” she says. 

She attended Canisius College, where she studied English and communications with a focus on public relations. Her first professional job was as a member of the communications team with the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes. “I was able to work on initiatives that addressed the critical needs of many, from urban youth to rural seniors, and every dimension in between,” she says.

She joined the Paychex team nearly eighteen years ago. The majority of her tenure there has been in corporate communications, overseeing public relations. “I’ve had the two best jobs at Paychex—as the leader of our public relations team and now overseeing our charitable foundation, investing in the communities where our 16,000 employees live and work,” she says. Fleming is helping to launch the foundation’s new strategic giving framework. “We have a unique sightline into the challenges facing American businesses and workers. We use those insights to direct funding where we see the greatest need,” she says. “The impacts of the COVID pandemic and the rapid acceleration to hybrid and remote work have helped to focus the efforts of the foundation to address one of the most profound challenges impacting businesses today: supporting worker wellbeing.” To achieve that, the foundation is partnering with national leaders in mental health, physical health, financial health, and professional and skills development. 

As for Fleming’s free time, it’s all about her husband, two daughters, and extended family. “We prioritize traditions like Sunday dinner and vacations,” she says. “That’s one of the best gifts we can give our girls, teaching them the importance of family.”

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