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4:21 pm
Wed August 7, 2013

For One-Time Tech Exec, Leading D.C. Charity Is No Small Job

Originally published on Wed August 7, 2013 5:43 pm

On a recent morning, Patty Stonesifer sat cross-legged on the floor of a day care classroom, laughing as pre-schoolers clambered into a fire truck made out of a cardboard carton.

This is a far cry from Stonesifer's old life. She made her fortune in the tech world, where she rose through the ranks at Microsoft to become its highest-ranking female executive.

Later, she became the founding CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the largest philanthropic organization in the world, with huge, global goals and an endowment of $34 billion when she left in 2008.

But now Stonesifer, 57, has downsized dramatically. She's the new head of the local Washington, D.C., charity Martha's Table, a nonprofit that feeds and clothes the poor and offers day care and after-school programs, with a total budget of $4.5 million.

Stonesifer recently led NPR's Melissa Block on a tour of Martha's Table, showing off the organization's thrift store, food pantry and sparkling kitchen, where volunteers were chopping melon and making peanut butter sandwiches for delivery via their soup kitchen vans.

Stonesifer says that when she worked for the Gates Foundation, she'd see the Martha's Table food van every night, parked right outside the foundation's D.C. office, serving hot meals to long lines of homeless people.

"And I saw that van and I saw that work," Stonesifer says. "And when I saw that the job was open, I thought, 'That's a job I would love to do.' "

And she's doing it without pay. Stonesifer takes no salary as CEO of Martha's Table.

One of nine children, Stonesifer grew up in Indianapolis, the daughter of a car salesman and a physical therapist. Giving back to the community was understood in their home. "I didn't know the word, or I didn't recognize that we were volunteering, but whether it was putting new missals in the pews at the church, or riding the bus to pick up the deaf children to bring them to Mass, or working in the soup kitchen on Sundays, it was just part of who we were," she tells Block. "It was just part of what it meant to be part of my family."

Even so and even after traveling the world for the Gates Foundation, Stonesifer says, working at Martha's Table has helped her understand need on a different level.

"When we do the monthly food distribution and over 340 people come and seek additional groceries, and I look at the folks in line — you see ... the cost of stress and ill health of hard work at low income, of lack of access to health care, of lack of access to healthy food."

That wears down the faces and bodies of hard-working people, Stonesifer says. "And I want to see whether we can't do something about that, here at Martha's Table, as a district and as a nation."

Understanding that many are stuck in poverty due to a lack of education or poor health is discouraging, Stonesifer says, but there's also immense satisfaction in supporting people when they need it.

"We all are thrilled by the families and the stories and the individuals. Who, yes, ... present one day for groceries. But then they're able to get that construction job or they've got the second job in the restaurant that allows them to get into the small studio apartment that they were seeking. And we get those stories every day, too."

Stonesifer doesn't miss the corner office, she says — although she does miss the big budget. "No one ... wouldn't miss having a bigger checkbook when you're trying to do what we're trying to do at Martha's Table," she says. "But we're lucky here that the community does support us. So we have a reasonable budget here.

"Could we do more if I had that corner office and that checkbook? Of course we could. But we're doing a great deal on the dollars that we have and making the change that I think we want to make."

Stonesifer's shift from large-scale philanthropy to a relatively modest local charity did baffle some who know her, she says. "But I also have an awful lot of people who say they heard it and said, 'That makes sense.' Because they knew that I was at a point where I could make decisions based on what I was passionate about."

As for those who still don't get it? "They should try it," she says. "It's a wonderful opportunity ... to come in in the morning and be surrounded by those beautiful children ... [and] have the responsibility to say, 'How do we support those children going forward?'

"So it's not a small job," Stonesifer adds. "It's a very big and very wonderful job."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On a recent morning, Patty Stonesifer gathered a squirmy toddler onto her lap, and helped him with a wayward sneaker.

PATTY STONESIFER: All right, Edwin, there you go - two shoes.

BLOCK: In a day care classroom across the hall, she sat cross-legged on the floor in her elegantly tailored clothes, laughing as preschoolers clambered into a fire truck made out of a cardboard carton.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

STONESIFER: Colby, show me how you drive it. What does a fire engine say? What's a fire engine say? Woo-ooh...

COLBY: (Repeating) Woo-ooh...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: This is a far cry from Patty Stonesifer's old life. She made her fortune in the tech world, making millions many times over. Stonesifer rose through the ranks at Microsoft to become the highest-ranking female executive there.

Later, she became the founding CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It's the largest philanthropic organization in the world, with huge, global goals and an endowment of $34 billion when she left in 2008.

But now, at age 57, Stonesifer has downsized dramatically. She's the new head of the local Washington, D.C., charity Martha's Table. It's a nonprofit that feeds and clothes the poor, and offers day care and after-school programs. Total budget: $4.5 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

STONESIFER: Martha's Table runs from the edge of that restaurant, to the edge of this building.

BLOCK: Stonesifer took me on a tour, leading me through the thrift store and food pantry.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

STONESIFER: You'll see this is set up like a little grocery store with...

BLOCK: ...and through a sparkling kitchen, where volunteers were chopping melon and making peanut butter sandwiches for delivery on their mobile soup kitchen vans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Put each slice in one bag?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No - like one, whole sandwich...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...whole sandwich...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...in one bag.

BLOCK: Patty Stonesifer says when she worked for the Gates Foundation, she'd see the Martha's Table food van every night, parked right outside the foundation's D.C. office, serving hot meals to long lines of the homeless.

STONESIFER: And I saw that van, and I saw that work; and I knew about Martha's Table. And so when I saw that the job was open, I thought, that's a job I would love to do.

BLOCK: And she's doing it without pay. Stonesifer takes no salary as CEO of Martha's Table. We talk about her pivot to this local charity in her small, bare-bones office on the ground floor, right on busy 14th Street. On the walls, mementos from her work with the Gates Foundation - baskets from Botswana, a photo of a young boy she met on a polio vaccination drive in India, and an African proverb that sums up her philosophy.

STONESIFER: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

BLOCK: Patty Stonesifer grew up in Indianapolis, one of nine children. Her father was a car salesman; her mother, a physical therapist. Giving back to the community was understood.

STONESIFER: I didn't know the word - or I didn't recognize that we were volunteering. But whether it was putting new missals in the pews at the church, or riding the bus to pick up the deaf children to bring them to Mass, or working in the soup kitchen on Sundays, it was just part of who we were; that engaging in the needs of the community was just part of what it meant to be part of my family.

BLOCK: Do you remember your parents talking about that relationship to the community?

STONESIFER: I don't know that we talked about it. I think we just did.

BLOCK: Are there things you understand about poverty, and need, now; that you didn't understand before you started working here?

STONESIFER: Well, I think I understand things at a different level. When we do the monthly food distribution and over 340 people come and seek additional groceries, and I look at the folks in line; you see that the cost of stress and ill health, of hard work at low income, of lack of access to health care, of lack of access to healthy food - and realizing what that looks like in the faces and the bodies of hard-working people that are just worn down at an age that is too young.

BLOCK: How much of a frustration level is there, when you think about the intractable nature of poverty? I'm sure you see a lot of the same people on those food lines day after day, week after week, month after month.

STONESIFER: It is always discouraging to realize that there are folks who are just stuck in poverty because, perhaps, a lack of education or a lack of health. And we are glad we can support them with groceries when they need it. But we all are thrilled by the families and the stories and the individuals who, yes, they present one day for groceries. But then they're able to get that construction job.

But then they're able to get that construction job. Or they've got the second job in the restaurant that allows them to get into the small studio apartment that they were seeking. And we get those stories every day, too.

BLOCK: Do you ever miss the corner office; think, I want to be back in that world?

STONESIFER: I actually don't miss the big job. There's no one who wouldn't miss having a bigger checkbook, when you're trying to do what we're trying to do at Martha's Table. But we're lucky here that the community does support us. So we have a reasonable budget here. Could we do more if I had that corner office, and that checkbook? Of course, we could. But we're doing a great deal on the dollars that we have, and making the change that I think we want to make.

So yes, I miss the big checkbook. I don't miss the bigger office, or the bigger title.

BLOCK: Do you think there is some danger that people know that you came in with your own, personal, big checkbook - right, and you've done very well in the tech world - and think, OK, Martha's Table doesn't need our money right now. They're doing fine. Patty Stonesifer is in charge; she brings all that backing with her.

STONESIFER: Well, even at the Gates Foundation, we worried sometimes that if we entered an area, other people would step back and say well, we don't need to do that; there is the Gates Foundation. But instead, we saw that people were ready to partner with organizations and entities that had a fierce belief in the mission. And here at Martha's Table, I'm hoping that people will understand that I am fierce for the mission. And I hope they'll see that putting their dollars to work here will make a big difference.

Is it a risk? There's a million risks here every day, and that's probably one of them.

BLOCK: Do you have friends in the tech world, from your old days, who are baffled by the choice you've made here?

STONESIFER: Well, yes, I have friends from every part of my life who were baffled by the choice. But I also have an awful lot of people who say they heard it and said, that makes sense - because they knew that I was at a point where I could make decisions based on, you know, what I was passionate about. And they knew my passion for increasing social justice and equity. So for every person who was baffled, there were two or three who said, that sounds like you.

BLOCK: And to the ones who were baffled, what would you tell them?

STONESIFER: They should try it. It's a...

(LAUGHTER)

STONESIFER: It's a wonderful opportunity - as you saw today - to come in, in the morning, and be surrounded by those beautiful children; but to realize and have the responsibility to say, how do we support those children going forward? So it's not a small job; it's a big, and very wonderful, job.

BLOCK: That's Patty Stonesifer, from the top rungs of the Gates Foundation and Microsoft to the charity Martha's Table, here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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