Near East Foundation Board Names John Ashby and Simona Ceci as Co-Presidents as Charles Benjamin Steps Down as President and CEO

Dr. Charles Benjamin announced that, after twelve years in his position, he will step down as President and CEO of the Near East Foundation (NEF), an international development organization operating in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caucasus. To support a smooth transition, Charlie will remain as CEO through June 30, 2022 before shifting to an advisory role focused on NEF’s strategic initiatives.

Charlie was first introduced to NEF, in the late 1980s as a Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar in Morocco. Based on this experience, he went on to pursue a long career in international development, including time as NEF’s Country Director for Morocco from 1993 to 1998. While pursuing his Ph.D. in Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, he conducted dissertation research in Mali, where he focused much of this work on NEF’s agriculture and livelihoods programs in the Mopti Region, listening to and learning from NEF’s local team.

With a deep connection to NEF and its local teams, Charlie assumed the role of President of the Near East Foundation in 2010, challenged with reviving the organization in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. He led the rebuilding of NEF with inspired vision and resilience and helped take the organization to new heights. One key to this success was moving NEF’s headquarters from New York City to Syracuse, NY, through a strategic affiliation with Syracuse University.

To shepherd the organization into its second century of work, Charlie led a new strategy to professionalize the organization’s systems and increase the efficiency and impact of its community-centered and community-led programs. The strategy reflected Charlie’s commitment to preserving long-standing community partnerships and leaning on the expertise of NEF’s local teams. With this front of mind, he carried forward NEF’s century old mission to embody the humanitarian spirit of its founders, inspired by the strength and resolve of its global team.

Under Charlie’s leadership, NEF’s programs and team grew significantly to deliver innovative and transformative programs to more than 6.5 million people across 13 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caucasus.

To lead NEF’s next chapter, the NEF Board of Directors have unanimously appointed Ms. Simona Ceci and Mr. John Ashby as NEF’s first Co-Presidents. 

“On behalf of the Board of Directors, it is with immense gratitude that we thank Charlie for his twelve years of leadership. He led NEF through a challenging decade, charted a path forward, and built a foundation to preserve NEF’s long history of impact for years to come.” said NEF board chair, Haig Mardikian. “And now, with great confidence, we are excited to support John and Simona in their new role as NEF Co-Presidents. Given our many years of work together and their countless contributions to NEF and the global team, we have full faith in their ability to lead our organization in its next chapter of growth and impact.”

John assumes this role after 10 years at NEF, most recently serving as Senior Vice President and CFO where he helped to guide NEF into a period of strategic growth and position of long-term financial sustainability. John brings more than 25 years of leadership experience in the non-profit and private sector across the United States, Europe, and MENA region, with an expertise in finance, organizational development, strategy, and general management.

Simona most recently served as NEF’s Senior Vice President of Global Operations, first joining the organization in 2013. She came to NEF with an extensive and diverse background in international operations management, government relations and legal affairs in a global setting. Simona’s experience combined with considerable time spent living and working in the field has underpinned her success in leading NEF’s global operations and guiding the expansion and adaptation of its programs to new geographies and initiatives.

Outgoing President and CEO Charlie Benjamin supported the co-presidency appointment saying, “It has been a great honor and privilege to work with John and Simona over the past decade. There are few people who know NEF globally as well as they do, and their leadership and tireless efforts have been critical to bringing NEF to its position of strength today. They bring a great mix of skills and experience to this new role and I’m excited to follow NEF’s achievements under their leadership.”

Over the past decade, John and Simona have served as members of NEF’s senior leadership team, working closely with Charlie, the Board of Directors, and country leadership to strengthen and expand NEF’s impact, improve organizational effectiveness, and grow the capacity of its team and partners. Their years of proven leadership, complimentary experience and skills, and a long-standing commitment to NEF’s mission and global team will serve as the foundation for their success in their new role as Co-Presidents. This includes a bold strategy to operationalize NEF’s six-year strategic plan (2021-2027) with an ambitious goal to triple NEF’s impact and double its size in the years ahead.

John and Simona expressed their enthusiasm, saying “We are truly honored to have the opportunity to lead NEF as its first Co-Presidents. We are very proud of all that we have accomplished under Charlie’s leadership and are energized to continue to work with our colleagues and partners here and around the world to advance NEF’s mission and our firm belief that all people should have equal opportunities to build and sustain safe and dignified lives.”


The Near East Foundation works with local partners to enable innovative, sustainable, community-led recovery and development across the Middle East, Africa, and the Caucasus in order to realize more prosperous, inclusive, and resilient communities. We draw on more than 100 years of experience in these regions to support marginalized people and communities in cultivating new skills and accessing resources, networks, and opportunities to shape a future where they can overcome vulnerability to poverty, economic and social inequity, conflict, climate change, and environmental degradation.

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