It’s been one year since Patty Stonesifer surprised the Washington nonprofit community with her appointment as head of a small charity in the District. Once the highest ranking woman at Microsoft, Stonesifer led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as it became the world’s largest philanthropy, managing an endowment of $89 billion.
Her move to Martha’s Table was, as Washington Post reporter Steve Hendrix wrote, like General Electric’s business legend Jack Welch “showing up to manage the corner appliance store.”
So one year later, is it everything she imagined?
“In some ways, it’s much better,” said Stonesifer, who endured playful ribbing from the Busboys and Poets restaurant staff for being late for an interview. With Martha’s Table located across the street, Stonesifer often used the restaurant as a kind of temporary office, and she has made friends with some of the waiters.
After 10 years at the Gates Foundation, where she was responsible for dolling out hefty grants to charities all over the world tackling major global issues like such as agricultural development and the eradication of malaria, she said she enjoys the work of being on the front lines of the poverty battle.
“I actually get to watch some of the children here improve their reading skills,” she said. “I have a more intimate understanding of the problems.”
Stonesifer makes it a point to regularly meet with prominent players in the District that combat issues relevant to Martha’s Table, a family services organization that also acts as a food pantry. She rattled off the leaders on her initial get-to-know list that have now become colleagues: Terri Freeman of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, Lori Kaplan of the Latin American Youth Center, Alexandra Ashbrook of DC Hunger Solutions, Kelly McShane at Community of Hope, Ed Lazere at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and George Jones of Bread for the City, to name a few.
“Everyone has been fabulous,” said Stonesifer, 57. “I’ve been really lucky.”
She admitted that upon taking her new position, she feared that she wouldn’t be so lucky.
“I was really worried that people would think I was a bit of a carpetbagger — that I just came in from outside and thought I knew everything,” she said.
“There were people that were sitting back and waiting to see if I was serious,” she said. “I do think there were people that were worried that somehow money that was supposed to go to them was somehow going to go our way. I had one person ask me, ‘Are you going to suck up all the money that goes to the little guys?’ But really, that’s not the way it works. The idea is to convince people to open their wallets a little further because we can get more done in this city. I don’t want to steal from anyone else. We all have to grow to make this work.”
She mentioned that it was important for people to see her forging partnerships in the community. So she thinks nothing of calling up other nonprofit executives to build an alliance, such as Kaplan, head of the Latin American youth Center, who Stonesifer asked to use one of their properties to open a monthly grocery distribution center.
Stonesifer said the biggest adjustment to the position has been the business of raising money.
“It’s very different being on the trying-to-raise-funds side,” she said. “At Gates, I was the one making the decisions of where to put our resources.”
If anything, she says, she’s grown more sympathetic toward the demanding work of leading a small human services nonprofit.
“I blush sometimes when a donor does something where I think ‘Oh no, I might have done that to someone.’ When a donor changes a meeting or something, I’m sure it’s well-intentioned. But what I used to wonder when I was on the donor side was why isn’t there more energy put to strategy? Now I know that Sundays are strategy day because during the week, I’m worried about the market [Martha’s Table operates] and the pre-K program going on or what’s happening in food distribution. I don’t have the luxury of time to do that important strategic thinking that donors love.
“Donors want to make the biggest possible change with every dollar, which does require strategic thought about where to put the money, but nonprofits are so thinly resourced that it’s hard to have the time to do the strategy work. I have sympathy on both sides.”
Strategic thinking might come more naturally after working for the world’s largest software maker and then at its founder’s philanthropic institution. As she described the vision for Martha’s Table, she grabbed a napkin and began drawing a Venn diagram of the elements that position the organization for success. The model she employed was created by Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” that she learned while serving on the board of Amazon. Upon joining Martha’s Table, she had the staff use this template to strategize.
“You have to decide what is real greatness and move that over to the nonprofit side,” Stonesifer said. “And for me the biggest form of greatness is knowing what you’re trying to do and being very — holding really tightly to that.”
This level of strategic thinking — the big vision — was new to the charity’s staff, according to some employees.
“The first time I heard about ending childhood hunger was with her,” said Martin Booker, director of food and nutrition programs. “She caused us to open our minds and really think about the end goal.”
Since Stonesifer joined Martha’s Table on April 1, 2013, the organization has added five pop-up grocery markets and a training center for parents with children enrolled in the organization’s education programs. It also began collecting new data and employed new assessments for its programming.
Similar to her role at the Gates Foundation, Stonesifer has decided not to take a paycheck from Martha’s Table.
“I thought I would plow that resource into growing more of the food distribution programs,” she said. “I’ve been really lucky in life. Being at Microsoft at that moment of growth and then being part of the Amazon growth [as a board member]. I’m lucky enough to be able to do it for nothing.”