SEATTLE - Patty Stonesifer, who helped start the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation in an office over a pizza parlor seven years ago
and has overseen its growth it into the world's largest
philanthropic institution, said in an interview on Wednesday that
she would step down by the end of the year.
Her decision marks a major turning point for the foundation,
which has operated largely as a family foundation overseen by Ms.
Stonesifer, a friend and confidante of Bill Gates, a co-founder
The arrival of a new chief executive, possibly an outsider, is
the last step in the foundation's transition to a more orthodox
institutional structure, with clearly defined divisions knit
together by a central management team that Ms. Stonesifer has
assembled over the last two years.
The announcement is likely to surprise the world of philanthropy,
which has watched the growth of the Gates Foundation with a
mixture of awe, fear and envy.
With $37 billion in assets, it is nearly four times the size of
the next largest foundation. It dispenses more than $3 billion
annually, more than five times the amount distributed by the Ford
Foundation, and will have some 800 employees by year's end.
"This job is mind-boggling because it requires a wholly different
skill set than any other job in the philanthropic world," said
Harvey P. Dale, a professor of philanthropy and nonprofit law at
New York University. "It's an enormous challenge."
Ms. Stonesifer, 51, who has worked for a dollar a year after
earning millions as a senior executive at Microsoft, said she was
comfortable stepping down now because she believed the foundation
had firmly established strategies for achieving its primary goals
of improving health, education and nutrition around the world.
"It's the right time," she said. "We have a lot of momentum now,
our strategies are in place, and it's time to take the
organization to the next level where we deliver on those
Still, finding a replacement for Ms. Stonesifer will be a
challenge because no one else has ever led a foundation of
similar size and scale of ambition. The biggest goal for the
Gateses is to find a vaccine that will prevent AIDS, but they
also hope to eradicate malaria, spark an agricultural revolution
in Africa and ensure that every child in the United States has
access to a quality education, among other things.
"She's been an amazing culture keeper, not only in terms of
selecting the more than 500 people we now have but also in
creating a structure to keep that culture in place," Melinda
Gates said of Ms. Stonesifer.
Ms. Stonesifer's departure comes as the Gateses are increasing
the time they spend on foundation matters. Ms. Gates now devotes
roughly half her time to foundation affairs, and Mr. Gates will
turn the bulk of his attention to foundation matters by Sept. 1,
when he relinquishes some of his control over Microsoft.
The foundation is known for its insistence on an unprecedented
level of continuing evaluation of its programs.
For example, Ms. Gates gets a "momentum" report each month that
summarizes the foundation's achievements and activities, and the
foundation is working to publish a form of its internal progress
reports on its Web site. It uses the information in those reports
to win government support for its programs around the globe,
where Mr. and Ms. Gates and the foundation's executive are often
greeted with more ceremony than heads of state.
All those factors ensure that finding a replacement for Ms.
Stonesifer will not be easy, although no doubt many will apply.
"The phone will be ringing off the hook," said Allan C. Golston,
president of the foundation's United States programs, which
include improving education and reducing homelessness in
Mr. Golston, who was one of the first people Ms. Stonesifer hired
and who served for many years as the foundation's chief
administrative officer, could be a candidate, though he did not
say whether he would apply.
Similarly, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, now head of its global
development program, could be a contender for the job. A former
Clinton administration official, Ms. Burwell was hired early to
serve as Ms. Stonesifer's second in command.
While acknowledging the possible internal candidates, Mr. Gates
said the foundation planned to do a full external search for a
"It will be interesting to meet these people," he said. "It may
be difficult to tell some people �no' who may think they should
have the job."
It is unlikely, however, that any future executive will have the
personal relationship Ms. Stonesifer has had with the Gates
family and with Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor who
pledged the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation in 2006
and is now a foundation trustee.
The daughter of an Indianapolis car salesman, Ms. Stonesifer is
unassuming. Her speech is punctuated with a mixture of
technological terms and homespun exclamations, like the "holy
cow!" she uttered on learning of the Buffett gift.
That pronouncement led to the Holy Cow award, an internal award
passed from one staff member to another each month for work above
and beyond the call of duty, and small stuffed toy cows are
scattered around the foundation's offices.
Ms. Stonesifer said she would assist in the selection of her
successor and planned to maintain ties with the foundation,
perhaps taking on a particular project. "I'd like to get my hands
dirty again," she said.
She was on her way to a job at Dreamworks, the entertainment
company, in 1996 when Mr. and Ms. Gates began talking to her
about taking over a project to put computers in public libraries.
She agreed to a salary of $1 a year, turned the space over a
now-defunct pizza parlor into the headquarters for the Gates
Learning Foundation and started running the effort.
"I was really the perfect person for that," said Ms. Stonesifer,
who is married to the political columnist Michael Kinsley. "It
was a discrete problem having to do with a gap in opportunity
that could be solved with money and technology. Along the way,
though, this particular family continued to see other problems
that, with the right resources and our strengths, we could do
Eventually, the occasional lunches to compare notes with Mr.
Gates's father, Bill Gates Sr., who was then running the William
H. Gates Foundation out of his basement, were deemed inadequate,
and the foundation in its current form was started in 2000
through a merger of the two existing entities.