An Interview with Jim Nowak, Co-Founder and President of dZi

Since 1998, Jim’s leadership has taken the dZi Foundation from a grassroots organization to a thriving non-profit that serves over 40,000 individuals in Nepal. dZi’s growth is a direct result of his knowledge, passion, and compassion for those dZi serves.

Jim next to a smokeless cookstove in rural Nepal.

You’re based in Ridgway, CO, and all the work is in Nepal, why?

“I was based in Vail, CO. and had planned an expedition with my then wife and co-founder of dZi, Kim Reynolds. Kim and I learned of a safe-house for girls, which was failing financially and at risk of closing down. After returning to the U.S, Kim and I organized our very first fundraising effort — an expedition to climb a new route on the 23,443-foot Himalayan peak, Pumori. We raised enough money to fund the girls’ home for 2 years. I realized that I had the ability to make a real impact and shortly thereafter we moved to Ridgway and founded dZi”.

What inspired the name of the organization?

“When we first started the nonprofit it was actually called “Friends of Compassion” and during our first board meeting we realized we needed a better name and several of the board members were wearing dZi beads around their necks. The dZi (pronounced “zee”) Foundation is now named after the ancient Himalayan etched stones that bestow health and protection upon the wearer. We wanted to provide better access to health and prosperity for the communities we support and still do to this day”.

What are your thoughts on the new branding for dZi?

“I’m excited that after more than 20 years the new brand is helping us to move in a new direction. We are better able to start leaving a mark on the next generation of donors and partners of dZi. It’s also helping us to take account of all of our forward facing media and ultimately it’s a great reboot to support our move to impact more people. Much like our work in the most rural communities of Nepal, we believe that maintaining and preserving our heritage is vital to the longevity of this special place and its people”.

What are some of the areas of focus for dZi and why?

“It’s an interesting question, for example – if we develop a small community water access project, it leads to much more than water access. It may lead to the ability to build a small kitchen garden irrigation pond that leads to improved diet from better access to fruits and vegetables. It could also lead to water sealed toilets for the households that can drastically improve health and sanitation. The women and girls in the household may spend fewer hours in the day collecting water which means they can focus that energy elsewhere like education, play and even give them a voice in the community. All of our projects have a really positive domino effect.

What are the main obstacles that inhibit the fulfillment of your mission? How are you planning to overcome them?

“Funding is always an obstacle, but we are now uniquely positioned with an incredibly experienced and passionate team in Nepal and the U.S. We’re now able to support many more beneficiaries than ever without having to ramp up staffing and driving up overhead costs. This is all part of our 5 year strategy, now we’re thinking longevity and it all ties into our rebranding. We are encouraging the next generation of donors and partners to be as passionate as our current donors so we can reach our goal of serving 75,000+ individuals in our project areas over the next 3-5 years”.

Jim giving a fundraising workshop at a dZi staff summit in rural Nepal.

In regards to dZi programs, do you have an area of focus that drives you more than other programs?

“All the years I’ve spent in Nepal, there has been a common theme and we hear ‘we want a better life for our children’ Education projects are a lever for that change. Before I started dZi, I was always a builder and building schools in our project areas makes a huge impact that has an even bigger ripple affect”.

Can you tell us a little about one of you most memorable experiences in Nepal?

“One of my favorite experiences comes form a small village in our project area, the community all got together to dig an irrigation ditch which was part of a larger irrigation project. This was difficult work, but everyone worked together and completed the project. When the project was over, everyone was sad that they would no longer get to hang out for a few hours each day and spend time together and some were even tearing up. This kind of community cohesion was not planned, but a really pleasant takeaway”.

What inspires you personally to continue the work?

“After more than 20 years of experience working with and being inspired by our really talented Nepal staff and building a strong team in the U,S., we have matured as an organization. Our proof of concept is strongly in place and we are confident in expanding and impacting more people”.

Can you tell us a little about how dZi preserves transparency and trust?

“Firstly, at the village level, each project is audited by the community and all expenses are published on a large public poster in the village. The Nepal government also audits all INGO’s (International Non Governmental Organizations) operating in Nepal. We also conduct our own financial audits, then we elect to have an outside audit of our U.S. accounting as well. Lastly, we are listed as a 4 star charity with Charity Navigator as well as being named a top 10 non profit by Global Giving. All of our financials are available for anyone to review on our website”.

What do you see for the next 20 years of dZi?

“I would love to see more people embrace community lead development, we call our working methodology ‘Deep Development’. We encourage remote communities to discover their own abilities and skills to create permanent solutions for their most pressing needs. We believe this is the best model to empower the communities we work within. This all ties into our newly branded slogan “Helping Communities Prosper, On Their Terms”


Interview By: Matthew van Rooyen

Communications Director

dZi Foundation

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