Saturday, July 29, 2006

Getting a Hat from Noriega

So to revisit the NPR theme, there was an interesting "This American Life" program I heard last night about a young woman (Sara York) from the Michigan Upper Penninsula (yup, da UP) that became a penpal with Panama's infamous leader. OK, so I am not going to focus on the underlying theme that she was probably being used by this guy, nor the idea that a thug may have a soft side.

Instead, what I found interesting is that this is a great example of how ACTION is a precondition to getting things started, often of surprising magnitude. It is a human example of those "butterfly wings starting storms". It is also a great example of an old negotiation addage: "You don't get what you don't ask for."

The gist of the story is that young Sara was watching TV and saw General Noriega. He had on a hat she admired, and that she thought her dad might like a hat like that; and she wanted to know more about Panama. Her dad, at first jokingly, said, "write him a letter".... so she did. This started a pen pal correspondence with Noriega, that eventually turned into a trip for this young girl and her mother to Panama. And, he sent her the hat, too.

As social entrepreneurs, we are often in need of "hats" from people that we don't know, and who may seem unapproachable. I am not talking about asking them for money, necessarily, but rather access to ideas, people, networks, a piece of equipment, a little of their time. I think we would all do well to keep Sara's story in mind. It's pretty simple, and proved very effective.

Why did it work? My thoughts:
1) Sara was non-judgemental... she and her parents were well aware of Noriega's reputation. But she didn't dwell on that- she was young, and perhaps a bit naive, but that may be why Noriega opened up to her. My observation is that one difference between social activists and social entrepreneurs is that the latter are at least willing to listen, and then perhaps deal, with those of a different stripe. This sometimes leads to better understanding and forward progress, in short, value creation for both parties.

2) Sara established a relationship. She didn't just say "please send me a hat". If she analyzed it, she could probably have figured out that the General could easily just afford to send her a hat. But she also wanted to find out more about his country, referring to what she was seeing on TV. This led to a number of letters over a period of time. In time, she received many things of greater value than the hat itself.

3) Sara took ACTION. She wrote the letter and stuck it in the mail: "General Noriega, Panama City, Panama." She didn't really expect to hear back, but she did it. That started the chain of events.

I know someone who heard of a movie star's interest in biodiversity, and found out he had a place in Colorado, and decided to go visit him without an appointment. Wow! A colleague asked for a very expensive piece of equipment that could help us better produce low cost cookstoves... the company said "yes" right away.

So whose hat would look good on you? Have you taken ACTION?

Oh, and if you are asked for a hat... look at as an opportunity for engagement. Maybe your hat can really help out someone who needs it more than you!

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