This December, Jim Nowak will retire from his role as President and join dZi’s Advisory Council. After 25 years, he’s excited to transition into retirement and support dZi’s work in a new capacity. As co-founder, Jim’s dedication and leadership allowed dZi to grow from supporting the education of fourteen girls in Kathmandu to forming long-term partnerships with communities in Eastern Nepal that benefit over 49,000 people. It has been a journey that spanned dozens of trips to Asia, thousands of miles of trekking through the Himalaya, and countless cups of roadside tea. But through it all, Jim’s guiding light has remained the same – “communities know best.”
The adventure Jim began in 1998 was greater than he could have imagined. An accomplished mountaineer who had been traveling to Nepal for nearly a decade, Jim left every trip with the feeling that he had received more than he had given back. The kindness, generosity, and connection he found while climbing in the high mountains and trekking through the rugged Himalayan foothills was deeply moving. On one of these trips, he and dZi’s co-founder, Kim Reynolds, were connected by a mutual acquaintance to a girl's home in Kathmandu that was failing financially. They organized a fundraiser – an expedition to climb a new route on the Himalayan peak, Pumori – and in the process, dZi was formed.
Jim Nowak and Kim Reynolds, dZi's co-founders
Pumori, from base camp
While dZi would expand to implement a wide range of programs across Nepal, Ladakh, and Sikkim, Jim quickly realized they had taken on too much. “It was a classic nonprofit 101 mistake,” says Jim. “We wanted to do everything for everybody.” He remembers multi-day bus rides to visit projects in Northern India, then more flights and busses to projects in Nepal, and then even longer journeys to reach working areas in Sikkim. “It was silly,” laughs Jim. “We didn’t have the money to drive all these projects forward and we needed to adjust.” After transitioning projects in India to NGOs based in those communities, dZi reoriented to Nepal. “Being able to focus fully on our partner communities in Eastern Nepal was a blessing. Working deeply with communities has been so valuable.”
In Nepal, dZi built a core staff that would develop the first iteration of a community-partnership model that dZi uses to this day. By forming fewer, more comprehensive partnerships, dZi was able to work with rural villages as thought partners, project implementers, and facilitators. “It allowed us to work with communities to identify their needs and help them create their own solutions. At first, we underestimated the capacity of rural communities. We never imposed ourselves, but we didn’t expect the amount of time and enthusiasm they were going to contribute. Seeing people excited to show up to dig trenches for water projects or crush rocks into aggregate was a big ‘ah ha’ moment for us.”
dZi’s community-centric model began yielding lasting results. As villages met their basic needs and began focusing on their future, new communities approached dZi for partnership. Jim watched as dZi grew from serving three communities in 2006 to fifteen in 2022. Each new partner helped dZi’s approach become more impactful and comprehensive, and together, started building networks of prosperity in the mountains of Eastern Nepal.
When asked what differences he notices when visiting dZi’s partner communities today, Jim’s answer is clear, “Oh my gosh. Healthier people. The improvement in rural health and sanitation has been massive. Moving from pit toilets and unsafe water sources to community toilets and safe drinking water piped to homes has been transformational.” But beyond the earthquake-safe schools, drinking water systems, and bridges that dZi has built, it is the intangible impacts of partnership that leave the greatest impression on Jim. “People have more pride in their communities. In some of these areas there is no trash, which is uncommon for many parts of Nepal. The sense of unity is something I wish we had more of where I live. They have accomplished so much, and it’s a privilege to have been a small part of that.”
Early morning in Eastern Nepal
Jim with a newly completed improved cook stove
dZi’s growth and success have been the product of countless people’s hard work – dedicated staff in Kathmandu and the US, tens of thousands of community partners who provide the vision for our work, and our network of supporters around the world. But throughout dZi’s journey, Jim’s unwavering commitment has been essential. During times of ease and times of challenge, he has kept dZi focused on genuine partnership. “I’ve always been a grinder,” says Jim. “I think that comes from over 50 years of climbing. Even when it isn’t going great, you keep going. There is always a better day ahead. There’s magic in the process and the pain.” It has been through seeing his clear passion for dZi’s work that countless people with no connection to Eastern Nepal have understood the importance of our common cause. And it's through his tenacity that many have received an email, call, or jar of homemade jam in the mail with a note asking to support this unique community-centered work. As a former dZi board member joked, “There are three things you can’t avoid in life: death, taxes, and Jim Nowak.”
As he looks ahead to the next chapter of dZi’s work, Jim’s vision speaks for itself. “I would like to see dZi be able to serve more people. The work is good, our model is effective and impactful, and the need is still massive. Our team has the ability to scale and serve more people, we just need the funding to make it happen. I am constantly amazed and humbled by the generosity of our donors. They trust us to use their money wisely, and I’m just so honored. I have unbelievable faith in what’s about to happen at dZi. We’re in a great position and I look forward to supporting dZi as an advisor. Don’t miss the miracle.”