Photo of Patty Stonesifer

Martha’s Table has been a Washington institution for decades now, having provided its noble food, educational, and opportunity programs to thousands of children, families, and neighbors across the District. In an ever-challenging landscape for social service non-profits, Martha’s Table is fortunate to be in the hands of President and CEO Patty Stonesifer, a true force of nature who has brought her expertise from both the corporate and non-profit spheres. I had the opportunity to pick her brain.

Needless to say, you had a very fruitful and successful career at Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. How have you incorporated this knowledge and experience in your more localized non-profit work?

Interestingly, my work at Microsoft and then at the Foundation had at its core the same value, which is personal empowerment- the ability for people to learn and have access to the tools and knowledge they need to have successful and productive lives. It starts with being able to do values-driven work.  The technique is the same, which is that you have to be able to be both a telescope and a microscope. You have to pull the telescope back and look broadly at the issue, the community, and the demographics that you want to change and support. On the other hand, you have to go in tight with a microscope and say, ‘What is going on here that prohibits nutritious eating, that makes healthy food unappealing to children, or too costly for the mothers, or too inaccessible in the neighborhood?’ This ability to think broadly, to think about what might drive health, and then come in tight on the issue and consider what levers you put in place to change things has been similar – whether it was in the personal computer revolution, or in the Gates Foundation efforts, or at Martha’s Table.

Did you find this position at Martha’s Table or did it find you?

I found the position at Martha’s Table. But I first found the organization in 1994, when I came to D.C. with Bill Gates when I was still at Microsoft, and brought computers to the older youth computer lab. Our government relations department said, ‘If you’re going to donate computers anywhere, you need to do the libraries (which was one of the focus areas) and you need to go to Martha’s Table, this great non-profit on 14th Street.’ I just became entranced with this organization that I continued to follow. When we built the Gates Foundation offices in D.C., we leased on McPherson Square, and every night I would look out the window and see this white van pull up and serve the people that were hungry and needed nutrition – that was also Martha’s Table! My husband and I became donors and received newsletters over the years, and one of those newsletters included the announcement that Martha’s Table was looking for a new CEO. I thought, ‘This is perfect job for me, I should be the new CEO!’ I don’t think anyone would have thought this was the perfect job for me except me, so I called the only headhunter I knew, and once everybody got over their surprise that I was really interested in the job, I met with the Board of Directors and Chair, and went from there.

What is a typical day at the office like?

I think in every job there’s a CEO of something. I, in many ways, am the CEO of Change Management and the CEO of Fundraising. My biggest job is to figure out where this organization needs to be going in the future. For us, the change at Martha’s Table is really about increasing the impact of each of our programs, deepening the quality of our work, and finding the resources to do the work.  I am that sounding board and encouragement of, ‘How are we doing today, and where are we headed? How do we know that we are getting there?’

Any typical day, looking at my calendar this week, I will be checking in about increasing arts and technology in our strategy of our older youth programming; I will work with Tiffany Williams, our Healthy Start Director, about our early childhood work on parent engagement; I will interview one of our teachers for our newsletter; and I will meet with some advisors about our real estate efforts over in Ward 8. I will then have dinner with two donors and attend the theatre afterwards. It’s a combination of being in charge of fundraising and change management.

How involved is the community when strategizing how you’re tackling their needs?

We do involve the community, but the answer is: not enough. Bernstein Family Foundation helped us get our Witnesses to Hunger group going, and those involved work closely with us on the needs they are facing, how they want to advocate with the city, and what needs to change at Martha’s Table. In the next six months, we will also formalize a youth council that will not only help us build out our services, offerings, and relationships, but will also be advocates in the community for the needs of youth that are reaching for greater empowerment. At Martha’s Table, we have quite a few multi-generation families.  For example, Isaiah, who is now one of our teachers, came up through our programs. One of the ways that we listen to the community is to often hire folks from the community that we serve. They continue to influence us greatly, but you can never do enough.

We also do regular short and long surveying of our community. For instance, at our Joyful Food Markets, we talk to folks about their cooking habits: what foods they want to have, and where the gaps are – so that we are bringing in the right foods and appropriately assessing how people want to cook in their own homes. We want our offerings to match what people want and need. Community engagement and self-determination are so important for creating the real solutions that we all want to see. It’s like giving a gift, right? A gift is what someone wants and needs, otherwise it’s just a waste of resource, and we take that wasted resource very seriously. Our choice model is key to this; choice is at the heart of the beginnings of dignity and opportunity, and we try to put it in as the first option, in everything we do. If you come to our thrift store for free clothes, we don’t hand you clothes, we let you shop for clothes like everyone else, because we believe that choice is at the fundamental level of empowerment. The same goes for our groceries; we say, ‘Here’s our little lobby market, what do you need? Shop over here for your rice, we have two kinds.’

Your leadership has had a phenomenal impact on Martha’s Table’s success. Can you tell me about the most significant changes you have made since taking the helm?

One of the most significant changes, which I think social service non-profits across the country are going through, is bringing in a kind of intentionality. Martha’s Table always did a fantastic job with children and food programs, but now we’re really trying to tie what we do every day to the change we want to see in this community, in these families, these children’s lives. We’re doing that by  designing our every action so that we can change those actions if need be. That tightly intentional process of measuring our impact is probably the biggest change that I brought – the measurements, the reflection, and the consideration of our work to go along with that.

You are planning an exciting, major expansion to Southeast D.C. What is in the works with this new project?

This is a new, 43,000-square-foot headquarters for Martha’s Table right in the middle of Ward 8. We will partner with the public school adjacent to it, Moten Elementary, where we currently have a pop-up market and are getting to know all the families there. We will co-reside with Community of Hope, which provides healthcare services, and we will offer our suite of infancy-through-young adulthood education services, and have that be the hub for our healthy eating efforts in Wards 7&8. We want to stand with children and their parents to increase their opportunity to thrive. This is going to be quite a change for us, much like in the beginning days of Martha’s Table, when 14th Street was right in the middle of a community of need; that has changed over the last 35 years. To be in Ward 8 everyday, where the families are sleeping, going to church, and attending school will be transformative for our work. Being right in the neighborhood should improve the dynamic nature of feedback and witnessing the impact.

Do you believe Martha’s Table is a model of best practice for other organizations?

The world changes so fast that at any given moment, we might be that practice, and at other moments, we are learning from others. A lot of what we’re doing with our pop-up markets, we first saw in action in New York City; we took what we learned from there, and tried to improve it. The truth is, we thought we didn’t have space for our tiny little lobby market until I went to Horton’s Kids and saw that they set up a bathroom cabinet to allow people to just go in and choose what they wanted. I think that this idea of a ‘single best case’ is evolutionary. Whether you are at Amazon or at Microsoft, you know that leadership is fleeting, and the same should be true in the social sector. We should be continuously innovating and improving. I believe that we are learning from those with best practice, and hopefully also modeling best practice.

What has been the most rewarding experience at Martha’s Table so far? Have there been any particular stories or experiences that have had a major impact on you?

I have had the privilege of going to one of our markets and meeting one mother who told me how much Martha’s Table has made a difference to her health, to her children’s cooking, to their interest in healthy foods, and how she has begun to use the resources that she has differently because she sees how healthy foods have changed everything in her household. That is just one of many examples. We have teen mothers here who are able to continue their education because we can provide early childhood care for their young children 11 hours a day. The difference in that child’s life where that mother is not only able to receive her high school diploma, but to go on to college; we are able to have this impact by being there for the child 5 days a week, and then continue the impact on the mother’s ability to do the things she needs to do to ensure that she is a great family leader. Those are opportunities that I get to witness everyday, and that’s what really keeps me here and motivated. My office is a shared space, and it is right next to the pre-k classroom, so we get to watch and learn from the children everyday. Watching them grow and change based on the fabulous teachers that are supporting them keeps me anchored to them. It’s all rewarding.

Favorite DC Restaurant?

Iron Gate- it’s this fabulous restaurant, Michael Babin, the owner, is really pushing hard to increase access to healthy foods around the city.

Last book you read?

I just finished Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I strongly encourage everyone to read it. It is about that last quarter of life in the United States and addresses how we should change the way we approach that period of life, whether for ourselves, for our parents, or for the people we love; the healthcare decisions, housing decisions, etc. Atul is an amazing writer.

Best aspect of DC?

Hands down, the Smithsonian. Yesterday I had my National Museum of African American History and Culture Board; I am, thankfully, one of the founding board members of this new museum on the Mall that will open September 24th. We spent the morning tromping around with hard hats and orange vests in the construction site, right there in shadow of the Washington Monument. This beautiful new museum is going to change the way we appreciate and understand the sorrowful part of African American history, as well as the powerful and exciting contribution that African American history and culture has made to this country. I love everything about the Smithsonian, and I am super excited about this new museum and the impact it’s going to have on every child in this district, and hopefully, every household.