Big Idea to Change the World

By: Jan Mazotti Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Collaboration Close Up Big Ideas

In the November-December 2009 issue, Gayle Dendinger, our publisher was inspired by the multi-national work ICOSA collaborators were doing with several nonprofits and U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He described the modern-day collaborative efforts of 300+ organizations and people who were committed to the cause—helping to rebuild 14 cities in Afghanistan—all of it collected, transported, and distributed for just $22.50!

There have been many positive outcomes from the project since we first highlighted it. For the Afghanistan work, we asked military units and nonprofits what they needed to "make a difference" across Afghanistan. We then took the list and asked for time, talent, and treasures from our collaborative partners. Surprisingly, no one we asked for help said no. In fact, most companies and/or organizations were excited to use their core skills or products to help make a difference in that part of the world.

During the project, we had many obstacles. And even though we (ICOSA/CAP) knew how to get humanitarian aid into the developing world, I can tell you that an active war theatre was a completely different beast. And, maneuvering through the federal government was no easy task. Early in the process, we used the tried and true rules of the game—be kind, courteous, and conscientious; relentless, but not offensive. In this case, that didn't seem to work so well and the project became stuck in the bureaucracies of D.C. Yet we trudged on and took persistence to a whole new level, sending a global email campaign to anyone we could find working in Afghanistan. Needless to say, it took only two hours for the people in D.C. to get global feedback from our email request and to contact us with a, "Don’t ever do that again." To which our reply was, "Then do your job." From there, it only took a few short weeks to get the project moving. It was really the right combination of collaboration, persistence, and persuasion that made the project successful.

Most people who have heard the story of the Afghanistan project have asked with amazement and disbelief why we did it. Frankly it was to make a difference, to change the world, and to make it a better place for the people there. That sounds fuzzy and sweet, but in reality, there were expected outcomes to our Starbucks napkin strategy—build 25 health clinics, clothe at least 10,000 people, supply basic hygiene to at least 2,500 refugees, build 50 sports teams, give toys to the children who had lost so much, take farmers out of the Taliban-directed opium trade, and help our troops and nonprofits build goodwill on the ground.

And what actually is happening on the ground is showing much more result than expected. The facts are: We filled a C-17 cargo plane on November 22, 2010, flown by the Mississippi Air National Guard from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado. Once at Bagram Air Force Base in Kabul, the goods were sorted for distribution across 14 Afghan cities. There were enough supplies from collaborative partner, Project C.U.R.E. to build and/or re-supply 29 health centers and clinics, and we can report that as a result, at least two lives have been saved so far. We had enough winter clothing and shoes, donated by the National Ski Areas Association and the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, for nearly 30,000 people to date to receive something. And then there were 5,000 toys sent by JAKKS Cares, the philanthropic division of JAKKS Pacific, Inc. The U.S. Olympic Committee knows that sport is an inhibitor to violence, so with their collaborative assistance, we were able to send over 2,500 pieces of sports equipment and uniforms—enough to outfit close to 250 teams. And, there were enough seeds and irrigation equipment to help approximately 3,000 farmers begin to put food on their tables through a legitimate outlet. Most importantly, the farmers will have the opportunity to extricate themselves from the clutches of the Taliban-driven opium/heroin trade.

So when it comes down to it, our big idea to change the world really only touched 14 cities and tens of thousands of people. Perhaps a collaborative of businesses, nonprofits, and government entities, when working together can make a measurable difference, either here or abroad. We know it works!