RIDGWAY – “‘Founderitus’ can be terminal,” said Jim Nowak with a self-deprecating smile. The co-founder of the dZi Foundation is 13 years into his mission to help the poorest people in the most remote counties of Nepal. Things are going well, but now, Nowak said, he needs help, “someone with complimentary skill sets who can take us to the next level.”
That person, Nowak was proud to announce last week, is Mark Rikkers, a long-time local who steps in as dZi’s first executive director, following a sixth-month search that combed 79 applicants from around the world.
By his own account, Rikkers – who is 46 and lives in Ophir with wife Corinne and daughter Sonja – has “mad skills,” a comment that shows a sense of humor but also happens to be true. A quick look at his job resume tells part of the story: high school math and Spanish teacher; school administrator at Crested Butte Academy and Telluride Mountain School; avalanche forecaster for CDOT and Colorado Avalanche Information Center; Director of Higher Education Programs for Lifton-Zoline International; guide and Snow Safety Director for Helitrax helicopter skiing.
The other part of the story comes from Rikkers’ education: BA from Prescott College in Leadership and Spanish (he grew up in Massachusetts, came West to ski and stayed); MS in hydrology from CU Boulder; research assistant for INSTAAR, the Institute for Artic and Alpine Research; and, most recently, MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management.
“I’m ecstatic,” Nowak said, arms thrown wide in dZi’s three-room offices in Ridgway. “We ended up with the absolute right person.”
Nowak is not going anywhere. He will continue to pursue fundraising and managing dZi’s “deliberate, sustainable growth,” but now “with a lighter hand on the tiller.”
One of the things that Rikkers expects to help with is communicating the complexity of what dZi does. “We are grappling with how to convey to people what it is we do. Because it’s so complex. It’s not simple.”
DZi began when mountaineer Nowak and partner Kim Reynolds decided to help a struggling school for girls in Katmandu. Fourteen at-risk girls were able to avoid a life on the street. Now, 13 years later, dZi’s Revitalize A Village program is positively affecting (they use the word serving) 21,000 people in six counties in remote eastern Nepal. Some villages are a five day walk from the nearest road.
The foundation has never been the type of NGO to show up and say, we’re here to help you. “We don’t have a silver bullet,” Nowak said. “We’re not going to parachute in to these places with money, as if that were the missing piece. What we do is slow. It is tedious. You need cultural fluency.”
“The RAV model is not a traditional development model,” Rikkers said, balancing on a physio-ball chair. It evolved out of the work of dZi’s Nepal Country Director, Ben Ayers, who has been living in Nepal for 12 years and is fluent in Nepali. Ayers or one of his staff may be contacted by people in a village with an idea they need help with.
The first year of RAV involvement will be about consensus building within a community, Rikkers said, “identifying their goals and what skills already exist to accomplish them. They come up with a community proposal. They come up with budgets, timelines. The proposals are vetted. Not all proposals are accepted. The process itself is healthy for the community – there has to be buy-in.”
DZi typically starts small, say, with a $500 grant to build a stone bridge over a creek that allows students to reach an existing school. The materials may be trekked in, or they may be harvested on site. The labor is almost entirely local.
The next year, dZi may, at the community’s request, build a new school. They have built 12 to date, at a cost of roughly $9,000 per school.
The next year, they may undertake a toilet building or a water system project. “We commit to these communities for five to six years,” Nowak said. “The people impacted are impacted in layered ways over time.”
He used the example of Manisha Rai, a young woman who benefited first from that stone bridge. (Floods had washed out the wooden one that was her only way to get to school.) Second, she was helped by the new school building, its supplies and security. Then, RAV conducted trainings in her village for a Parent Teacher Association. Parents and students in remote eastern Nepal actually have significant rights under the country’s constitution, but they are often ignored by the government teachers who are themselves ignored by the distant bureaucracy. The dZi PTA trainings (at $500 per training) have dramatically raised the level of involvement, and competence, at nearly 100 schools. The quality of Manisha’s education improved because of it.
The next year, outdoor sanitary toilets (at $200 each) were built for every house in her village, helping keep everyone healthy so they could go to school. And finally, Manisha was encouraged to apply for a scholarship, which she got, to continue her education beyond grammar school. She is part of a community-wide success story in building their own management expertise and leadership skills. “It’s not about us,” Nowak said.
All of this is right up Rikkers’ alley: his “systems thinking” (from his LinkedIn page), his “action-oriented decision making,” his experience as a teacher and a guide. “We want dZi to be a ‘learning’ organization,” he said. “That is, one that is self-aware, honest, paying attention – in order to become more efficient and more sustainable in helping the people with the highest need.”
“I guess my highest priority,” Nowak concluded, “is to make sure this organization evolves past me. I’m not going anywhere. But as my board says, affectionately, ‘What happens to us if you get hit by a bus?’”
Rikkers said he is still in “sponge mode,” learning what dZi is and does. His first trip to the Himalayas is coming up this fall.