There are many mountains in life, both literally and figuratively. One such mountain that can seem insurmountable is the march of modernization, especially in remote areas such as the Basa village in Nepal. Mitch Russo is joined by the organizer of the Basa Village Foundation, author and mountaineer Jeff Rasley. Jeff talks about his love affair with the Himalayas and mountaineering, and shares how he came to learn about the village of Basa. He also shares his experiences with the creation of the Basa Village Foundation and what lessons he learned in helping the people of this tiny village reach for the modern world with their own hands.
Listen to the podcast here:
Bringing Modernization To Nepal: What Living In The Jungle Can Teach Modern Man With Jeff Rasley
Our goal is to help you be a better leader, inspire more people, create the passion your community wants and profit from the experience. No matter where you are in your journey, we are here to help you grow your tribe, build your community and share your mission with as many people as possible. In light of everything going on between the social, medical and financial climate now, there’s no time to waste. We have work to do.
Our guest is the Founder of the Basa Village Foundation, which runs culturally sensitive development in Nepal. He is also the director of six nonprofit organizations and a US liaison with the Himalayan expedition company, Adventure Geo Treks. He is also the author of eleven books. He is a frequent guest on radio and television. He is here to help us better understand how we can build a sustainable tribe of community-based on contribution and a better world for all. Welcome, Jeff Rasley, to the show.Sometimes, the cure for midlife crisis is to go tracking the Mount Everest base camp trail. Click To Tweet
Mitch, thank you for having me.
It’s my pleasure. Jeff, you have had an incredible life. You built and sold the company to fund your philanthropic activities and your community-building life and a life of contribution. That’s rare and wonderful at the same time. Let’s begin with the mission of your tribe. How would you describe what the core mission is for you and your members?
As far as the Basa Village Foundation goes, our core mission is to help the people in the Basa area of Nepal develop infrastructure. Meaning, schools, water systems, hydroelectric systems and various other aspects of helping them choose how they want to enter the modern world. In this area of Nepal, when I first visited it in 2008, there were no running water, no electricity and no vehicles with wheels. People were living the same way they had for about a thousand years. The modern world was moving inexorably closer and closer. A road was coming towards the village. It has arrived. Cell phone service was coming, which has arrived. The village realized it needed to figure out how to join the modern world. I happen to have connections with the leaders of the village through trekking and mountaineering. I started this foundation with the sister foundation of people from the village to help them do that.
I have to take a step back here and ask the question about Nepal, in particular. There are many countries where you might have or could have done this. You pick the country that is dominated by the Chinese government. I’m wondering why you chose Nepal.
It’s not dominated by the Chinese government. It’s squeezed in between India and China. It’s stuck in a position of trying to negotiate its way between these two giants without being overwhelmed by either. It’s independent. There is certainly influence from the Chinese and India, politically and economically. The people of Nepal are proud of their history. They had a monarchy that lasted about 300 years but was overthrown through a democratic revolution years ago. They have a brand new and one of the youngest, actual democratic Republic but with a parliamentary system in the world.
My connection with Nepal began when I turned 40. My wife decided that I was suffering from midlife crisis symptoms. She thought the cure would be for me to go trekking the Mount Everest base camp trail. She slapped down a brochure about doing that in front of me on the table one evening and said, “Why don’t you go do this?” I did. My first experience of trekking in the Himalayas has turned me on to the mountains and the culture and the people. I kept going back and eventually became a trekking and mountaineering leader, and started doing philanthropic work with different organizations over there and it evolved. That started back in 1995 and evolved by 2007 into the beginning of the formal Basa Foundation.
I’m sure your wife had a great intention but she probably didn’t expect you to go all-in on this mission, did she?
I don’t think she did. She thought it was like a shot. It was a one-time cure. Instead, it turned into a new addiction.
I understand addiction quite well. This is fascinating for me and the readers as well because this started out as a passion. Most communities and tribes begin with the passion of the leader. From your passion personally, you were able to cultivate relationships and then mobilize others with their time, physical presence and money to assist you in creating some new infrastructure in the Basa village and others. Tell us a little bit about that process. How did you get people to buy into your mission?
I had been going to Nepal doing treks and climbing. I started leading groups. I developed a connection with what we call an outfitter company, a trekking mountaineering company called Adventure Geo Treks. Through the course of the years of going back there regularly, I developed this deep desire to help the Nepalese. I then focused on this one village because the staff that owned and ran Adventure Geo Treks all came from Basa village. The top level of the company lived in Kathmandu, but they all grew up in Basa. They have family in Basa. The people they hire to be porters, guides and cooks still live in Basa.
After a mountaineering expedition in 2006, when we got back to Kathmandu, I was asked by the owner of Adventure Geo Treks if I would consider raising $5,000 to add two classrooms and two teachers to their school? Their village school had three grades and they wanted to add a fourth and a fifth grade. They told me $5,000 would pay teacher salaries for three years and would pay for all the materials to add two classrooms. I said yes. I contacted friends who had been trekking with me and other social friends and business contacts. I said, “I would like you to make a small donation. This is a micro-project.”
I thought it was a one-shot deal. We raised the $5,000 and then I thought it would be neat to lead a group over to Basa. I had never been to Basa village. It’s not on the main trekking trail. It’s pretty isolated. I did and then I fell in love with the village and encountered this wonderful community. You talk about community building and the close integration of a tribe. That experience was interesting on that level because the people in Basa, the families have lived there for generations. I would go up to someone I met in Basa and say, “Tell me about that guy or that family over there.” They could relate the ancestry of every other family in the village going back multiple generations.
It’s tightly woven and had little contact with the outside world. There are two pieces to answer your question. One is in terms of building my community or tribe to help the community in Basa, it started with that first fundraising project. They were friends of mine and other trekkers and climbers. The other piece is the tribe of Basa. It is a community within what’s called an ethnic tribal group which is called the Rai people. It is literally a tribe. It was fascinating. I loved being able to experience that level of tribalism in a positive way.When you fall in love with the mountain and the culture of the people, it makes you want to come back and give back. Click To Tweet
I had a similar experience of visiting and spending time in Bhutan. I found Bhutan to have a similar culture in that, The beauty of Bhutan is that everybody spoke perfect English. It was amazing. Unless they were raised in a monastery, they spoke perfect English, young and old people. Everybody was of the same culture, meaning the same religion and the same background. It was a peaceful place. There were no street fights or arguments. They weren’t warring factions as we have in America where we have all this confrontation. None of that exists there.
I experienced much of what you are describing how you would meet with somebody. Quickly, the conversation would move from the little circle of their own home out to the community and further of the family members in the end the lineage of those members. It is incredible. Let’s get back to your tribe. You started your tribe by asking a couple of friends to help you make a couple of contributions. Let’s track the progress of how that went. You have raised the $5,000. What happened next? I don’t mean the step-by-step process, but did you end up getting more and more people to contribute? Did you find that you eventually evolved a message that you could quickly communicate and help people on board to rapidly understand what the mission was?
The next step was after that, the fundraiser was completed. I went and visited the school and trekking group. We came back and the members of that trekking group and I were talking when we’re back in Kathmandu, “This was such a wonderful experience but is that the end?” We thought since we were all interested in doing philanthropic development work in Nepal that we didn’t want to end it there. The owner of Adventure Geo Treks, a guy named Niru Rai who is a leader within the Basa village said, “Let’s create a partnership.” He created a foundation based in Kathmandu called the Basa Village Foundation, Ltd or whatever the Nepali indication for a corporation is.
I organized a call with about 30 people who had donated to that little fundraiser and/or had been trekking with me or had donated to some projects I’ve done in the past. I asked, “Would you like to work with me to create a 501(c)(3) corporation or not?” I had no skin in the game. I would have been happy to continue like if something came up spontaneously, I would do a fundraiser but most of the other people wanted to create a foundation. I agreed to take the lead in doing that. Out of that telephone conference came the 501(c)(3) Basa Village Foundation USA, Inc.
Let’s fast forward to 2021. How many members or people are involved? Whether they’ve contributed or not, how many members are following you and are part of your mission either emotionally, spiritually or financially?
In terms of actual formal members of the corporation, we have 30 to 35 formal corporate members. There have been over 100 people, probably even closer to 200, who have been at least one-time donors to our projects. We keep a list of donors. Whenever we do a new project, which we usually do at least one each year, sometimes more than one. We’re in touch usually by email with an update. Also, because we have this relationship with Adventure Geo Treks, many of our members have gone trekking in the Himalayas with Adventure Geo Treks.
There are three other people who have become trek leaders like me connected with Adventure Geo Treks who organize their own groups. They encourage the members of their group to support the Basa Foundation. It’s interesting, and I’m sure you can relate to this since you have been to Bhutan. People have that experience. They come back wanting to give back. Like I did, they fall in love with the mountain and the culture of the people. It’s ripe for recruiting donors and often members of the foundation. That is how it’s spread out that way.
You are not a rah-rah guy from what I could tell. You’re not jumping up and down, and screaming at people, “Join this club with this community.” You seem to have had an experience and communicated your experience. Others wanted that same type of experience and followed you in, which is beautiful. When you think about the communication itself, here we are trying to help people understand how to communicate the message of their tribe. What would you say to somebody if you knew that they had a checkbook and you knew that they were interested in helping indigenous communities in general or potentially, even traveling? How would you get them interested?
The way that I have done this is when we have a project. We have never tried to raise funds just for the foundation. We don’t have paid staff. We don’t have an office. It’s completely 100% volunteer. Those of us who lead trekking groups will have our expenses paid by the group. Other than that, even when we go over to do foundation work, we pay our own way. The recruiting has simply been, “Here is the next project. This is what we want to do. This is why we want to do it. Here is the budget. If you want to support it, send a check of any amount.” The people we communicate that with are other trekkers and climbers or personal friends.
One little piece of this that I haven’t mentioned. I still belong, but I’m not active at this point, to a Quaker meeting. Before we got our 501(c)(3) status, the Quaker meeting was our funnel for contributions so that people could get their tax reductions. The donations went to the meeting and then the meeting disbursed with the understanding that any donation for that purpose would be sent to Nepal, to the sister foundation over there. A number of our members actually who are from the Quaker meeting have never been to Nepal but have heard me speak. They have seen slideshows. I have given talks. I feel invested in it in a visceral way as opposed to an actual experiential way.
￼Jeff, members need to be kept up-to-date. They need communication. For their donation, there is a return of sorts, psychic return or spiritual return. How would you describe what it is you provide to those who help you by contributing or staying interested in your cause?
Not much in the sense that the satisfaction people get from seeing how their money is spent. Our people on the ground over in Nepal send photographs of the projects as they are progressing. As the water system was being built, we would get updates always with photographs, and personal stories from the villagers by email, which I would disseminate to our tribe. A number of people have gone over to Basa and experienced it. That is the most moving aspect of our experience for those within the tribe who have had that because we are literally covered in flowers when we enter the village.There is a certain satisfaction that people get from seeing how their money is spent. Click To Tweet
Although these people are poor dirt farmers, they have little to give away. They are extremely generous in terms of wanting you to come to their home, to let them cook for you. They make art out of flowers and give you the necklaces and medallions and things that they’ve made mostly with flowers. The Adventure Geo Treks, because there are people from Basa village that run that company, have that same ethos. They always send the people who have gone trekking with them away with silk khatas, the scarf and other gifts.
My house is filled with gifts that I have received from my friends in Basa and Adventure Geo Treks. There is also a Tonka painting, which is a beautiful piece of art that was given to me. There is also a photograph that is framed. It won a travel photographic contest that I entered. The experience through sharing photographs is one of the most enjoyable aspects for those of us especially who have been there, but also for those who haven’t been but feel connected through whatever reason motivates them to want to give to our cause.
When I was in Bhutan, a lovely young lady gave me a spinning prayer wheel. To this day, it sits next to my keyboard. Whenever I remember, I give it a spin. It reminds me that one spin transports me back to Bhutan and the experience of meeting this beautiful young lady, the joy and happiness that I felt from her. Let’s shift gears once more. Let’s talk about those who love what you talked about and would love to do something as you have done. Let’s see if we can provide a little guidance. If somebody is reading and they get the idea that, “Jeff has the life that I would love myself.” Where would they start? Do they start first with a passion? Would they start with finding a brochure that they could follow the pathway to? Where do you think someone could begin?
That is a wonderful thing to ponder. In terms of using my own experience as a guide, it’s having an experience that you feel a personal connection that makes you want to give. If you then have leadership qualities that help you to inspire others to join your cause, then you can use the communication gifts and talents that you have to bring others into your tribe. All I did to start that first fundraiser is I sent some emails and then it built from there. I then started getting invitations to give talks to churches and civic organizations. I have given talks to every Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, a bunch of churches throughout the Midwest and mostly in Indianapolis, but even in Chicago, bookstores and being a guest on podcasts like yours. I like talking about my experiences in Nepal and showing my photographs. Other people feel that passion and feel the love that I have for what I’m doing and the authenticity of our good works. That’s it.
I share a passion for photography as well. I travel frequently, at least I used to, all over the world. I don’t do it for money. I don’t sell my photos or try to. Sometimes, people can go online and buy them, but for the most part, it’s for my own enjoyment and to share with my friends. If you want, you could look at MitchRussoTravels.com. You’ll see them organized by destination. The second to last trip I made was to Myanmar. I have some wonderful experiences and memories of that. Bhutan is on there as well and many others. Jeff, you are a unique type of community, compared to the others I have interviewed so far because other people are focused on social media, all these software tools and services, and monetizing their tribe. You are more focused on the mission, which is refreshing. I appreciate the intensity of your focus on that. Is that something that you are happy about? Do you wish you did have all those other things that people seem to need when trying to grow actively or almost urgently growing your tribe?
I do use social media. I’m somewhat active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. Also, on Pinterest, although I’ve been falling behind on that. I drew the line there. You can spend all of your waking hours on social media. Talk about addiction and how it sucks you in. I strictly limit myself to no more than two hours a day online. I do post regularly in those three. I’m an old guy. Techy stuff is still a work in progress for me. I enjoy connecting with other people through social media. The part of my own experience that created this passion and love was being over there in the mountains with the people, this grounded experiential aspect of it. That is what draws other people into it. It’s that we’ve experienced a culture that is premodern and has those wonderful connections that we envy. We talk about tribe building as something that we have to intentionally and conscientiously work at. For them, they are born into it.
You are not old. You are seasoned and experienced. I’m in the same age group as you, I prefer to think of myself that way. It’s good that I get a chance to speak to people of all different types of all different tribes and leading all types of groups. This has been a special conversation for me. Jeff, if anybody wants to find out more, maybe learn about the Basa Foundation and more about you and your tribe, where would they go?Your leadership qualities, communication gifts, and talents will help you to inspire others to join your cause and your tribe. Click To Tweet
The easiest way would be to my website, which is JeffreyRasley.com. There are links to the foundation’s website. There are links to Adventure Geo Treks and a lot of information and photographs about trekking, touring and mountaineering in Nepal, as well as links to all the books I’ve written and articles. That’s the portal into my world.
Thank you. What I have taken away from our conversation is this passion to participate. It’s one thing to start a business. There is typically a goal to building a business, which is to some degree to make a profit and provide a service. When you find somebody who is passionate about contributing and loves the process as much as the end result, that person has a special place in this world, Jeffrey, and that is you. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for being part of our community, as well as one of the tribe builders. I hope we get a chance to talk to you again soon.
Thank you for having me, Mitch. It has been a lot of fun. I would love to do it again.