Patricia Stonesifer, former co-chair and chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is the incoming director of Martha's Table in Washington. (Eva Russo/For The Washington Post)

It took about six months after moving to Washington for Patty Stonesifer to find her new job. As the former chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she had a lot of corner-office options to sift through, including a university presidency and the top jobs at a national charity and an international development agency.

Her choice? She’s going to run Martha’s Table on 14th Street NW. Starting April 1, she will take over the well-regarded but decidedly local food pantry and family-services nonprofit organization.

Stonesifer, 56, who oversaw the Gates Foundation endowment of $39 billion and a staff of more than 500 for nine years, will manage the D.C. charity’s $6 million budget, 81 paid employees, three vans and thrift shop.

Martha’s Table plans an official announcement Wednesday. But as word of Stonesifer’s unexpected career move began to circulate in recent days, it inspired twin reactions: “Wow!” and “Why?”

Overachievers usually work their way from small to big. Having Stonesifer come run a small local charity is like General Electric business titan Jack Welch showing up to manage the corner appliance store, or one of the Super Bowl-bound Harbaugh brothers deciding to coach high school football.

“If you just look at my résumé, I find that I have to explain this,” Stonesifer said last week at the temporary office she’d established at a Busboys and Poets table across the street from her new home base. In between a series of briefings from Martha’s Table managers, she tried to explain how a top-of-the-charts philanthropy pro came to match fates with an ambitious local charity.

“But if you know me, I don’t have to explain it at all,” she said. “I absolutely think I can help Martha’s Table, but this is going to be wonderful for me.”

A shift in scale

Cathy Sulzberger, the head of the Martha’s Table board of directors, was in a taxicab last fall when she got a call from the headhunter leading the board’s search for a new leader: A surprising — and exciting — candidate had applied.

“Honestly, my first response was, ‘Is Patty Stonesifer sure she wants this kind of job?’ ” recalled Sulzberger.

Running the 33-year-old nonprofit group will certainly be a shift in scale. Under Stonesifer, the Gates Foundation became the largest philanthropic institution in the world. It has set colossal, planet-shifting goals for itself: eradicating polio and malaria, transforming American high schools, and more.

Before that, Stonesifer was a senior vice president at Microsoft responsible for developing MSNBC, Encarta and Slate magazine (now owned by The Washington Post Co.).

More recently, President Obama asked her to chair his White House Council for Community Solutions, and she has just wrapped up a stint as chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents. Stonesifer has appeared on Time magazine’s annual list of the 25 Most Influential People. She is married to journalist and founding Slate editor Michael Kinsley. She is a boldface name.

“There is no phone call that Patty would make that wouldn’t be returned, none at all,” said Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of nonprofit groups and foundations.

Soon after leaving the Gates Foundation in 2008, Stonesifer and Kinsley began splitting their time between Seattle and the District, where he used to live and where she has a daughter from a previous marriage working at USAID. Last year, Kinsley accepted an editor’s job at the New Republic magazine, and they decided to make the District their full-time home.

Stonesifer has been wealthy since piling up tens of millions in Microsoft stock in the company’s early years. (She also became a director at before it went public and remains on that company’s board.) But she retains the modest bent of the Indiana Catholic who grew up with eight siblings in a house where volunteerism was as regular as making the bed. She took no salary while running the Gates Foundation.

After the couple bought a restored brownstone near Dupont Circle, Stonesifer began exploring Washington by foot and Metro.

“I was amazed at how there is a city within a city here,” she said, reeling off the stats: 110,000 households live in poverty, one in three households with children can’t afford enough food. “This idea that the District has so much child hunger, it’s mind-boggling.”

Stonesifer decided she needed some time in the trenches. Nothing would teach her, and her peers in the foundation world, more about these intractable problems than confronting them, year after year, in the faces of the people who suffer them.

And then she saw the CEO-wanted ad for Martha’s Table.

“I decided to raise my hand,” she said.

Her husband said he was surprised, at first.

“I said, ‘Are you going to be adding the salt to the soup?’ ” Kinsley recalled, sitting with Stonesifer in their living room after her coffee-shop meetings were over. The walls were covered with paintings by Seattle artists, misty mountain ranges and tulip fields. “But I shouldn’t have been surprised. You said you wanted to do something hands-on.”

“You didn’t really believe me,” she said. “You thought I should be a university head.”

“Yes, run a college,” he said, “maybe the World Bank.”

“It’s nice to have a husband who thinks you can do anything.” She leaned over to pat his leg.

“You’ll get your turn at running Hewlett-Packard, I assume,” Kinsley said.

She shot him a look.

“Joke! Joke!” he said.

The right person

First she had to get this job.

“Even if she comes from a major philanthropy and is so well-known, we had to make sure we were hiring the right person for Martha’s Table,” Sulzberger said of the long vetting Stonesifer went through. “This may be a smaller stage, but it’s not a small job for anybody.”

Martha’s Table started in 1980 as a place for hungry students to get an after-school sandwich. Its “McKenna’s Wagon” food vans have been mealtime fixtures at McPherson Square and other gathering spots for the homeless for decades. Now, it serves more than 1,100 people a day with meals and early-childhood and after-school programs.

The group’s legion of volunteers is legendary: A roll of more than 10,000 school kids, poor people and the occasional president who chop vegetables and build sandwiches.

Now, the organization wants to make a leap.

“I think Martha’s Table is ready for the next stage,” said Linda Moore, founder of the E.W. Stokes Charter School in Northeast Washington and longtime board member. “Even though I’m not sure what that is, we were looking for a leader to take us there.”

Stonesifer got the job. The head of the Gates Foundation U.S. programs, Allan Golston, sent congratulations. So did Sylvia Burwell, president of the Walmart Foundation. Even Stonesifer’s old boss thought it was a good move.

“I think it blends all the elements she loves in philanthropy,” Melinda Gates said by e-mail. “Even when living in Seattle, she did hands-on work at a local charity — anonymously. That type of work keeps you grounded in the real issues in people’s lives.”

Again, she will work for free, but she will also work for real. She expects long hours. This is not, she insisted (with some heat) a “retirement” job.

She’s heard that one before, after she left Microsoft and agreed to run Bill Gates’s library initiative.

“ ‘Oh, she’s going to convert libraries to the Internet, how sweet.’ Well, it wasn’t sweet at all,” Stonesifer said. “We added 11,000 libraries to the Web, and that group went on to become the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

No stepping back

On a taxi ride from her house to a meeting of philanthropy leaders at the Hotel Monaco, she described her biggest concern: that people will assume she can connect a funding hose from Martha’s Table to the Gates Foundation and the coffers will be full forever.

Not gonna happen.

“That’s not what they do, and that’s not what Martha’s Table needs,” she said. “The strength of Martha’s Table is in the thousands of small donors and volunteers that ensure we deliver services every day. I don’t want my coming here to make people step back in any way.”

The cabdriver leaned back. “You work for Martha’s Table?” he asked in a strong Ethiopian accent.

Stonesifer hesitated. “I’m going to.”

“It’s a good charity,” the man said. He picks up volunteers there all the time, he explained, young people who need a ride home. Thinking of his own two children in Virginia colleges, he doesn’t take their money.

“You’d have to be mentally handicapped to charge somebody doing what they do,” he said. “You work for Martha’s Table, I won’t charge you, either.”

Stonesifer put a hand on his shoulder, even as she insisted he take the money from her hand. “You dear, sweet man,” she said. “God bless you.”

On the curb, she exulted.

“That’s the power of Martha’s Table,” she said. “A man driving a cab and putting two kids through school. That’s what we have to work with. I’m so excited.”