Two and a half years ago, Patty Stonesifer fulfilled what Forbes magazine called a “boomer fantasy.” Having chucked her position in Seattle as CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she dispensed some $3 billion a year in charitable gifts, she moved to DC to be closer to her daughter and ended up running Martha’s Table, a comparatively tiny community-outreach center and preschool near U Street.
But this is Washington, and if Stonesifer no longer wonks out on education-reform policy with the Secretary of Education, she can dish demographics with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell (her former employee), and make sandwiches with the President. It’s the fantasy a more ordinary 59-year-old might have after the boomer fantasy proved too small.
Officially in listening mode since taking the job, Stonesifer has overseen the most significant changes in Martha’s Table’s 35 years of operation: Next year, construction is slated to begin on a new center in Southeast DC’s Hillsdale, reflecting the organization’s shift closer to the low-income population that has been largely gentrified out of the neighborhood around 14th and V, Northwest. Working alongside the Capital Area Food Bank, Martha’s Table will expand its Joyful Food Markets program, bringing pop-up produce vendors to 44 elementary schools by 2018 in the city’s Wards 7 and 8, up from four at the beginning of this year.
We sat down with Stonesifer to discuss the differences—and pleasures—in being close to power instead of wielding it.
People were shocked when you took this job after running a philanthropic behemoth like the Gates Foundation. But you weren’t a stranger to Martha’s Table, or to DC.
The first time I came to Martha’s Table, I was a Microsoft executive—there’s a picture from 1993 of me with [former Martha’s Table president] Veronica Parke. But I’m married to Michael Kinsley, who, even after coming out to Seattle to create Slate, always kept a foothold here. Between Microsoft and later at the Gates Foundation and my time as a Smithsonian regent, I came and went regularly.
Microsoft’s offices here are on McPherson Square, and out the window of that building, every evening at 5:15 you can see McKenna’s Wagon—Martha’s Table’s free-meals truck—pull up. So Martha’s Table was always part of my experience of DC.
It’s been said that West Coast techie philanthropists look for insanely great solutions. In New York, the private-equity guys and bankers look for return on their charitable investment. What do Washington philanthropists look for?
The drumbeat at Martha’s Table is local, but we’re in a city that considers the universal. Almost every thoughtful philanthropist I speak to here is interested in how our programs relate to what we should be doing about early childhood or nutrition across the country. We have the congressional leadership over here chopping vegetables, asking about how many of our people are homeless, how much we see mental-health issues.
I don’t think that linkage happens in Seattle as much. Out there, the goal is just to get the vegetables into the pot. When the head of USAID is chopping vegetables here, he’s thinking about food stability.
When you arrived, you said we shouldn’t expect you to wield a big Rolodex from the tech sector or global philanthropic circles. Why not break it out?
My first year here, I needed to learn what stands in the way of families coming to their best end, and I still have a tremendous amount to learn. So I did set aside my ability to influence on a larger scale. I still haven’t been to the Hill since I’ve been here. [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan is not the most important person for me. Sometimes it’s the city government, but mostly it’s people who have knowledge of what we do here, which is academics and other nonprofits. We’ve had experts in to talk about what role toxic stress has in children’s lives and how we might help facilitate the solutions coming out on that.
But now, two years in, I can ask who should be part of a larger conversation. I’m not using my Rolodex formally, but I use it informally quite a bit. I’m grateful that the Health and Human Services Secretary, Sylvia Burwell, for instance, is someone who worked at the Gates Foundation for ten years.
You see her?
It’s hard to imagine the difference in scale between your world and hers. Does she say, “I’ve seen some great data lately that you could use?”
First of all, Sylvia Burwell loves nothing more than to say things like that. When you’re doing pop-up food markets all over town like we do, you wonder if all the food gets used, and [people from her agency] have shared insights about food waste. We ask questions in our sampling of parents based on things they’ve seen working elsewhere. That interaction can be a powerful thing. After all, those people didn’t get into politics or agency work because it was glamorous—they wanted the country to be what it could be. Intersecting with us gives them the ability to play that out.
What boggled so many people’s minds about your taking this job was the huge cut you took in resources and reach. Do you ever wish you were sitting where Secretary Burwell sits?
I never think that! Are there days when I miss that checkbook? There aren’t many when I don’t. But I like this close-to-the-heart opportunity—not just close to my heart but to the heart of the matter, the families working to improve their lives and their children’s lives. That was hard at the Gates Foundation, where the responsibility was to do things at scale and find solutions at scale. Most of the work close to the problem was done by our partners. I like being part of that solution.
Plus, if I ran up against an accounting problem at the Gates Foundation, I couldn’t go down the hall and read a book to a three-year-old.
Washington has a very well-developed philanthropic culture, but it’s different from the Gates brand of giving. Are you tapping into the old-school network here?
That arts-and-culture philanthropy scene that’s driven by access to great moments often resides in the same household as concern for neighbors, but we don’t put on the ball gowns here. One of our best fundraisers we call One Pot Suppers, where people host gatherings in their homes. We’re having more than 75 of them all over town in October. And in January, we join with DC Central Kitchen to do a much higher-visibility effort called Sips & Suppers, where chefs from the restaurant community come to an individual’s home to throw a great dinner. It’s an expensive ticket, and last year it was in 30-plus homes around the city.
But Martha’s Table gets thousands of checks every year from families who write that $500, $600 check, who say, “I’m doing all right—let me pass it along.” That spirit of shared responsibility is the best of what’s here. It isn’t always played out as much as it should because we in DC live in isolation from each other. The city of great need and the city of great wealth don’t meet that often. The need is often invisible, but one in eight families in this community is experiencing food insecurity—in a city that has more receptions and buffets than anywhere on the planet.
From where you sit now, what do you make of the critique of your former life that goes, “Yeah, these Silicon Valley geniuses do amazing stuff, but most of it seems to be better ways of hailing a cab”?
Well, the first application always goes to those who have the bucks to fund it, right? That was the premise of the Gates Foundation, that we could accelerate the pace at which medical solutions would reach the needs of the poor. I think we’ll continue to see that for information technology. I believe, frankly, that the democratization of technology, in which I spent 20 years—going from mainframes to personal computers and now anywhere-access to knowledge—levels the playing field. It’s significant, whether it’s for a young mother looking for somewhere to get fresh produce or someone looking for a cab.
Are you seeing that technology coming to this sector?
It’s already here. The older youth at Martha’s Table are building a food app as their summer project to help people find the resources they need. Our families are using an app called Vroom that the Bezos Family Foundation—Jeff’s mother and father—created with scientists. Every day, it sends a tip, a simple activity that you can do with your child in the car, on the Metro, or changing diapers. It specifically describes how it accelerates brain development. The families love it.
So that model for grocery delivery or taxis—how does that affect the way that Martha’s Table can eventually reach seniors? How can that matching excess capacity to demand—which is what Uber did—apply to food waste? One researcher recently wanted to talk to me about why low-income families were not accessing the sharing economy. I said you just have to be here. There’s sharing going on, because that’s how families with fewer resources create community. It’s just not called Uber—yet. Now, how do we employ technology to make that go further? That’s an interesting question. But I’m an optimist.
Do you think the digital generation that’s coming along will be able to connect with people, not only machines?
Oh, yes. You can see that in what young people are choosing to do. Crazy numbers of them are trying to do Teach for America—or to be interns here at Martha’s Table. It seems baked into this generation. They don’t see technology as a dazzling thing but a tool to stay in touch. They want to be close to what’s going on. We need people in the tech sector to produce new ways of working. But we also need a lot of really great brains entering the social sector, and government, and I think we’re seeing that.
When you took this job, you said it wasn’t the one that would impress your mother most, but it was what you wanted to do with your days. You’ve accomplished so much, and it looks like you’re not done. What could your daughter do that will impress you?
My daughter meets me over at Busboys and Poets on Monday mornings to give me organization advice! Our generation is starting to see our children lap us. They are more interesting, more connected. They are going to accomplish more. I love to see these new leaders taking the reins and doing it better than we did. They can exceed what we could do. At least I hope so. It needs to be done better than we did.
Senior editor Paul O’Donnell can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.