Hippos like tomatoes and other things you might learn if you listen

Hippos like tomatoes and other things you might learn if you listen

Posted on January 23, 2013 by Michael Corley

I find TEDTalks content rich, entertaining and well presented. The prime example? Ernesto Sirolli’s presentation entitled, Want to help someone?  Shut up and listen!

During his presentation, Sirolli shares several experiences about the dynamics and challenges of solving social problems. Interestingly, the challenges have more to do with human nature and less to do with any technical, geographic or political difficulties.

Many of his observations and suggestions are reminiscent of how The Patterson Foundation (TPF) is attempting to approach philanthropy and partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Sirolli: Don’t approach a problem with a solution already in hand.

TPF:  TPF believes that new realities emerge from organic intentionality. In other words, many partnerships need to evolve on their own timelines, and through this intentional evolution, ideas and solutions will emerge.

Sirolli: You can’t help those who don’t want help.

TPF:  We tell our partners, “When we partner, we like to play in your sandbox.”  We also insist that all partners have skin in the game. We are very clear about this from the onset and expect potential partners to tell us if they don’t want this type of help.

Sirolli: The most critical building block for creating solutions is developing relationships with those involved.

TPF:  TPF believes that connective tissue among individuals is the foundation for creating new realities.

Sirolli:  Many critical relationships must be developed through one-on-one meetings as opposed to community-wide gatherings. Through this, trust is built with key people.

TPF:  Our CEO intentionally develops relationships with partner CEOs to open the lines of communication, build trust and comfort, and align objectives.

Sirolli:  If you listen, the answer will emerge.

TPF:  TPF enters into partnerships and collaborations for the purpose of creating new realities. We aren’t sure what new realities will emerge until we work with our partners for a period of time. By actively listening and engaging in discussion, new ideas and approaches emerge and evolve.

Sirolli tells the story of being a young Italian aid working trying to help a country in Africa. He and his peers could not understand why the residents didn’t take advantage of the fertile soil to grow and sell tomatoes. So without discussing this with the “locals,” he and his team set about to grow tomatoes. And grow they did.  He said they were bigger and better than in his native Italy.

One day, a herd of hippos came out of a pond nearby, and ate all of the tomatoes. When Sirolli and his team asked the locals why they didn’t tell them about the hippos, they responded with, “You didn’t ask!”

This seems so obvious, yet, in the heat of wanting to do good and make a positive difference in peoples’ lives, we often talk and act without listening and reacting.


  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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