February 10, 2013

From Gates Foundation Head to Leader of Food Pantry

Patty Stonesifer will become head of the $6-milllion Martha's Table in Washington in April

Eva Russo/Washington Post/Getty Images

To many in the nonprofit world, it was a shocking move: Patty Stonesifer, the former head of the largest foundation in the world, taking the helm of a hunger-relief charity in Washington.

After leading the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization with $37-billion in assets and a global reach, Ms. Stonesifer would seem to have more than enough experience to run the $6-million Martha’s Table.

But the veteran executive, who sought the job in a quest for a more hands-on nonprofit experience, had to persuade a skeptical board before earning her seat.

The board of Martha’s Table, says Cathy Sulzberger, its chair, was worried that Ms. Stonesifer would experience culture shock in making the transition. “We were concerned about how her skills would translate from working on such big policy issues to an organization that was more service-oriented,” says Ms. Sulzberger, a former Washington real-estate executive.

But for Ms. Stonesifer, who led the Gates foundation for 11 years until she stepped down in 2008, the career move was logical—and was years in the making.

After all, when she started at the foundation, it was tiny. And that’s when she says she was happiest.

“It was a very different organization” in its early days, Ms. Stonesifer says. “It was the Gates Library Foundation. We had 100 employees who went to every small library in the nation—11,000 of them—crawling under desks and hooking up computers and libraries that had no [Internet] access, and then training librarians on how to help their patrons.

“When I look back at that time at Gates, I don’t think I ever had a better time and felt that I was learning more than in that period,” she says.

A Role Model

After Ms. Stonesifer left Gates, her affinity for hands-on philanthropy was rekindled when she served as chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions, which was tasked with helping promote innovative social projects and get more Americans involved in civic affairs. She met with social entrepreneurs around the country, including one who became a role model: Bill Strickland, founder of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that provides job training for adults and arts education and mentoring to young people.

“I wanted to be Bill Strickland,” she says. “I wanted to be part of the solution at the community level while using my voice the way Bill does to directly affect policy and advocacy that can address the needs of poor people in the District but also in the country.”

Answering an Ad

Armed with this revelation, Ms. Stonesifer set out to find her next mission. Instead, someone found it for her.

A friend—she doesn’t remember who—forwarded her the job advertisement posted by a search firm working for Martha’s Table.

She enlisted the help of her friend Mary Tydings, a consultant at the Russell Reynolds search firm, to connect her to the recruiter.

Ms. Stonesifer applied for the position, and after board members met her, “everybody came across with the same feeling that she was completely dedicated to being in this kind of organization,” says Ms. Sulzberger.

One thing Ms. Stonesifer felt she had to be clear about was that her background wouldn’t necessarily produce big grants, nor does she think it should.

“We’re very likely to raise money the way Martha’s Table always has, which is through an enormous number of members of the community deciding to volunteer more, donate more, and care more about this issue [of poverty]. We’ve got to show people that’s who we are and that’s who I am.”

When Ms. Stonesifer takes over the job officially in April, she will replace Lindsey Buss, who is now leading the World Bank’s volunteer and community outreach efforts.

Martha’s Table serves 1,100 homeless and low-income people every day by providing them with meals and clothing as well as education, job training, and recreational activities. It annually raises $4-million in cash and $2-million in donations of food and clothing.

Raising cash will be one of Ms. Stonesifer’s challenges as the charity seeks to tackle the poverty that pervades the nation’s capital. Almost one out of six residents in the District of Columbia lives in poverty, Census Bureau figures show.

The 33-year-old charity has just finished a strategic plan that includes improving its services, expanding its reach, building partnerships, and strengthening its advocacy.

Ms. Stonesifer cites two Washington nonprofit leaders—Lori Kaplan, president of the Latin American Youth Center, and Billy Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength—as leaders she admires and from whom she will seek advice. She is cautious about her background lending her an expertise she feels she has not yet earned.

“I don’t want to pretend in any way that I come with the solutions, because I don’t,” she says. “I want to learn what they have learned.”

Although she does not officially start until April, she is already preparing for her new role. She spent one night last month with volunteers from Martha’s Table riding in a mobile soup kitchen that serves the homeless. The next day, she participated in a pantry-bag giveaway.

Ms. Stonesifer says she’s eager to roll up her sleeves again: “Instead of continuing to do what I call the 'benevolent bureaucrat’ role, where I could be at a foundation giving funds or running a large institution with lots of front-line leaders as part of the team, I wanted to come close to the heart of the problem.”

A Family Tradition

Ms. Stonesifer’s memories of her parents’ volunteerism have largely informed her current work. Her mother and father were active volunteers at hunger-relief charities in their neighborhood in Indianapolis—so much so that a local food pantry was named after her father, a daily volunteer.

In Ms. Stonesifer’s mind, working for a social-services group is not a departure, but a homecoming. She originally moved from the technology world to philanthropy “because I wanted to use the skills and resources I’ve been given to figure out how to create great social change,” she says.

But her new job at Martha’s Table, she says, represents a return to her roots: “The issue of urban poverty was not one I was able to dive into, and yet that was where my life began.”

Patty Stonesifer, president, Martha’s Table

Education: Bachelor’s degree, general studies, Indiana University at Bloomington

Career highlights: Chief executive officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; senior vice president, Microsoft

Government service: Chair, White House Council for Community Solutions

Board-service highlights: Former chair, Smithsonian Board of Regents

Salary: Ms. Stonesifer declined to be paid a salary, as she did when she headed the Gates foundation.

Send an e-mail to Caroline Bermudez.