Ryan Boyette Shares The Process He Developed When Creating To Move Mountains

Ryan Boyette Fundraising Superheroes 
How can you build programs that reflect the international communities you hope to serve? It all starts with creating a process that centers around the needs and voices of that community. 

Ryan Boyette is the founder of To Move Mountains, an organization providing education to children and communities in areas of conflict to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to improve all aspects of their lives. When he first began his work in the Nuba Mountains, it was a big culture shock, and Ryan knew the only way to create real change was to immerse yourself in the community and build a process that centred around the needs of the Nuban people

Top 3 Takeaways 

  1. You have to fully immerse yourself in the culture of the community you hope to work with. In Ryan’s case, he found the best way to do that was to live exactly like the people of the Nuba mountains by leaving his compound, building a home out of grass and mud. Even after doing that, he still does not consider himself an expert on their culture but says the experience helped him learn the right questions to ask when helping that community. 
  2. Be prepared for the mental challenges that come with entering a new world. It can be very emotionally taxing to enter a community that has new food, languages and ways of living. So make sure you are taking care of yourself and getting the support you need. 
  3. Focus more on the process than the output. To Move Mountains began their planning by bringing together all the different tribes, religions and languages in order to build an education system that reflected their needs. Ryan and his team understood that they knew how to build a curriculum but they needed guidance from the people of Nuba to understand what content should be filing that education program. 

Our Favourite Quotes

(04:26) When the organization that I worked for evacuated, I resigned. And my wife and I decided we should stay in the war. I didn't feel it was right that I had been working for years with the people that I cared about and loved, and I saw their world change in front of them, and I can just easily jump on a plane and leave. So the last plane left and we remained. 

(10:07) I learned very quickly is if I was going to make a larger impact with the people, then I needed to be out of this kind of compound, my own little world kind of mindset.

(18:43) Once we humbled ourselves and made them the experts, everyone was free to share. They didn't feel like they needed a Masters or a doctorate degree in education to be able to participate. Right. But they were doctors and Masters students of their communities and what they've experienced, and we let them come out with that.


Let's talk about supporting international communities with Ryan Boyette.

Hi and welcome to Driven's Fundraising Superheroes Podcast. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and as an innovator in nonprofit technology, our team at Driven is determined to help you reach your true fundraising potential. Please give us a visit us at trustdriven.com to learn more. We'd love to help you with your donor, volunteer or member management.

When working in international settings, it's important to understand the culture. When working in international settings, it's important to understand the culture of that community. So often people will try to parachute in and do whatever they think is best as a solution for that problem. But often it's not the right answer. It's not always about finding solutions, but the process in working together to create opportunities for community to flourish. This is the philosophy Ryan adapted with his Humanitarian Works. Ryan Boyette is the founder of To Move Mountains. He has worked the past 15 years in Sudan on various humanitarian, media and human rights programs and is now dedicated to the productive education for the future of Sudan. So thank you so much, Ryan, for joining me on the show.

Yeah, thank you, Sabrina. I'm really happy to be here.

So can you start us off by sharing a bit of your story? How did To Move Mountains come to be?

There is quite a bit of context, but let me kind of maybe make it a bit brief. So in 2002, I graduated College, I read an article, a newspaper article about a 20 year civil war that was taking place in the middle of Sudan. And when I graduated College, I was kind of frustrated. Why was this 20 year civil war going on? And I had never heard of it. It was going on at that point, I think, for 15 years or something around there. And I was frustrated. Like, why as a College graduate, I didn't know that this was taking place. So I started doing research and started hearing more about Sudan. And I would say that I was motivated a lot through my faith and my belief. I felt like I wanted to go and help in any way that I could. And so I joined an international aid organization, and they flew me to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. I didn't know where the Nuba Mountains was. And when I got there, I started doing a lot of humanitarian work. And I was learning from other people who had been there before me kind of supporting some humanitarian work there.

So I was involved in all sorts of projects, from agriculture to water and sanitation to education, so many different things. And then after working with that organization for about eight years, we saw signs that war would start when I was there. Sorry, let me back up a little bit. So when I got to the Nuba Mountains, there was a window of peace. It was like this five year window of peace. And so the war had just kind of stopped and slowed down when we arrived. But you can still see there's not many buildings in the area, but the buildings that were there, some of them were destroyed by bombs. Some villages had been destroyed. There wasn't good food security. People were still trying to farm and catch up so you could see the remnants of war. But we were there in a peacetime. But during those eight years, then we started seeing war was about to come back because of how the government was talking, and it's the government of Sudan that was attacking the people of Nuba. And so as the time went on, the organization I was working for ordered me to evacuate.

At that time, my wife and I had just married, and my wife is from the Nuba mountains, and she struggled very hard to get an education. And she is a very smart woman, and it's always been her dream to finish school. And I've seen how much impact she has in her community. And I was always kind of in the back of my mind, not only her, but so many other people in the region. And so when the organization that I worked for evacuated, I resigned. And my wife and I decided we should stay in the war. I didn't feel it was right that I had been working for years with the people that I cared about and loved, and I saw their world change in front of them, and I can just easily jump on a plane and leave. So the last plane left and we remained. And I started a media organization called Newba Reports, and we worked with local journalists and built up their capacity and started reporting on the conflict. So we're in the front lines of the war with the displaced people inside caves. They're running from bombing. That was like daily aerial bombardment from airplanes on people who lived in houses made of grass and mud and rock.

It was surreal, and it was a major, like, major fighting. There was helicopters and there was airplanes like jet fighter jets. There was tanks. It was a big battle, a lot of battles. And so that went on for about another six to seven years. When the fighting started slowing down, it was always in my wife and I's idea in mind that the people we saw that people really desired education. And so when we would go and do interviews in the caves as journalists, we'd ask people, what's your greatest need here? And many times people would say, we want education. And this is in places, Sabrina, that there was a famine. I mean, there was no food, and getting water was very difficult during the conflict. But they would say education. And so this surprised me, but they were like, we know what war is. We know what it is to survive in war, and we're tired of it. And so we see education as a way of getting out of this oppression, getting out of these problems. And so that's when Jazeera and I, my wife and I thought about To Move Mountains. So To Move Mountains was created in 2018 when we moved back to the US to kind of establish the organization and for ourselves to get an education on how to do it right.

So both my wife and I approach Vanderbilt University to support our work. Some professors in the education program at Vanderbilt University, and they also accepted us into the University. So while going to school, we're building To Move Mountains to help children who are affected by conflict and support their education in areas of conflict and education that reaches their needs and their desires. Not necessarily a top down approach.

Yeah, it sounds like this was definitely many years in the making and that almost your whole life experience kind of led up to it.

Yeah, that's exactly right. When I was doing a lot of humanitarian aid, I saw a lot of mistakes being made by myself and other organizations. And I just saw a lot of things that didn't work, some things that did work, and a lot of those things that did work revolved around a robust training or an education in some way. Education was involved in the programs that worked, but also getting the voice of the people and really understanding and building from the ground up. Those are always the projects I saw that had great success. And so we wanted to mimic that and even bolster even more just an education system could be very political issue, but we wanted this to be built from the communities. And so we always see them as the experts of what they want their children to be like now.

And do you touched on this a little bit at the beginning of this answer, but can you explain a little bit to our audience what it means to parachute to solve a problem? What other mistakes did you notice when you're beginning your journey and started working internationally?

Yeah, that's a very good question. I think. Yes, I was beginning my work in Sudan. I had worked in other countries before that, too, quite a bit. I worked in Haiti. I worked with Aboriginal communities in Australia and other places as well. And I would say at the beginning of my time in doing a lot of that work, it was a similar approach. We have a solution to a certain issue or a problem, and we come in and try to convince people that this is a good solution for their problem where with no cultural at least, I would say the struggle is with coming into a community at first. Even if you've worked in communities for a very long time, like even if someone has eight years experience working in a community, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know the culture as well as the people who live there and what they need. A lot of organizations live in fenced off compounds with barbed wire, and they live in these little communities within another, larger cultural setting. And they might have more understanding than when they first come. But still, I really think it's a very sheltered understanding of where people's desires are.

And I learned that early on. I realized my limitations because I saw them. They played out every day as I have communication with people. And I realized, oh, there's a mistake in communication here or a misunderstanding of communication because of the culture or because of language or something like that. And so something I learned very quickly is if I was going to make a larger impact with the people, then I needed to be out of this kind of compound, my own little world kind of mindset. So I personally, the organization I was working with, I asked them, I said, can I move and just have a regular house like everyone else in the village? So after my first year, I moved to the village, and I just built a house out of grass and mud. My house is exactly like everyone else's. And so I lived like that for several years, and that really opened my eyes, just sitting and listening and hearing conversations and sometimes asking questions, sometimes not, sometimes just sitting and listening the conversations that people have about their problems. And even now, I would say I'm not an expert on what they need, but I know now the questions to ask.

And I would say that has really helped me to do work that is going to have a more long term impact and in line with what the people want.

Yeah. You literally have to go in and immerse every aspect of yourself with it. I think that was a really great way to approach the situation. And I'm curious, when you were starting that journey, what was the biggest challenge you faced? Was there any mental obstacles you had to overcome?

Yeah, I would say there were different challenges based on how much time I spent there and how much I had learned. So I'd say when I first got to Sudan, it's extremely remote. I mean, you would be hard pressed to find more remote places because war has just cut the people off from the rest of the world for decades. So when you get there, there's very little infrastructure. There's no power, there's no lights, there's no cell phone network. There's nothing that really connects you to the outside world. People farm. That's how they get their food. But despite being cut off from the world, they have a great, strong desire, and they're very resilient as a result of the world. They want to develop themselves. So I think one of my big challenges, very simply, when I got there was food. Loneliness was a great challenge because I couldn't communicate with people, but it also inspired me to learn and I tried and ate everything that everyone gave me. So I think those things, they seem very physical, but I think that really wears on your body and your mind over long periods of time if you don't take care of yourself.

But then once I got over that hurdle, I would say the next challenge was stepping out of my Western mindset on how to solve an issue and listen more. I would try to approach projects with the Western mindset of like, okay, this is how we're going to tackle this situation. This is how we're going to solve it. But I was not hearing and seeing how other people had already before me from the region have tackled those issues. But maybe because of the war, those ways that they solved it were delayed, but there was still a possibility. Right. And so I think coming in with this mindset that I know how to fix this was when I was young, I was very young. So I was very naive to what was the reality. But I learned it very quickly. And I think as time went on and I started learning the methods of asking questions and how people solve their own problems and how we can support that was a much, much better approach.

Yeah. To be open and to ask those questions really is half the battle. You have to be willing to learn and always go in with, like, an open mindset for sure.

Yeah. I think I asked so many questions, and there's a lot of funny conversations that we have. I'm thinking of just like, when we talk about I had a conversation with someone one time, like in the Sudanese, well, in the Nubam culture, they don't say thank you very much. It's just not in their culture to say, like, you give someone something and they say thank you. And this is when I was still very recent there. But what they always say is welcome. So if you're eating food together, you always invite people to eat with you. Whereas Westerners were like, oh, this is my food. And we hold it close to us and we eat our own food. Right. Like, this is my food that I cooked. Right. So one day I was helping someone with something and I was like, why don't you why doesn't people say thank you here I was very young and naive, and the guy turned to me, said, well, why don't you people ever say welcome? Why don't you ever welcome us to a meal together? And I was like, and I felt I was convicted. I was like, okay, I now understand where I've been doing something wrong.

And people have maybe been viewing me like, he's coming with this idea, but he can't even welcome us to a table. Right. And I wasn't ever thinking about that until this friend of mine said that. And that's a very simple example of just a mindset that's very different that now when you approach an issue together as me as a foreigner and people there approach an issue just that mindset of welcoming people to that issue and solving it together as you eat a meal together is very similar and so that's just one little lesson that really helped me in the long term

Yeah it's those little things that you like again you can only figure out your experience that's right.And I'm really curious when you came back and you were with To Move Mountains what process did you create to ensure that the voices of the community were being included in your work? It seems that you did work really closely with them when building your organization but I'm really curious when you got back what you did to ensure that everyone was being included

Yeah I would say a big part of the To Move Mountains identity is that we bring a process of inclusion into our work and that to me is more important than like I would never say we bring results, we bring outputs which I think a lot of organizations would say this is our output. Right. I think ours is we provide a process that allows people to be involved in their education system which I think is unique I mean it's unique in the west. I've never been asked what I want my son to be taught in the school right. So what we do is come with some activities that are culturally appropriate based on the culture to get people to be involved in voicing their opinions together about a topic. We do a backward planning model where we brought tribes from all over Nuba with representation from parents, teachers, students, community leaders, women's association, youth association we brought them all together from all over, Nuba from all different from Christianity, local religions and Islam and we also brought people together from different tribes and different language groupings and they all shared together and we asked them three major questions and this is the big picture of where we want to be and they were what do you want your child to be like which are the values that they have within their communities?

What do you want them to know and what do you want them to be able to do by the end of 8th grade which is primary school? And so we had these rich discussions and people would break out into groups and their community groups and geographical groups then we'd break them out into their affinity groups and then when they would come back and talk about what they want their children to be like no one do you start getting different ideas and different opinions based on where they're from and what group they are a part of and then they would share and then the other groups would participate in sharing their thoughts about what another group shared and it was this amazing time of construction and design where they were the experts. And we told them that. They said, we have curriculum experts here that know the how we know how to make a curriculum. Dr. Suzanne Nave, who is our director of curriculum design, she stood up and she said, we know how to make curriculum. But you know, that what you know what you want your children to be like and do we don't know that you're the experts on that.

So once we humbled ourselves and made them the experts, everyone was free to share. They didn't feel like they needed a Masters or a doctorate degree in education to be able to participate. Right. But they were doctors and Masters students of their communities and what they've experienced, and we let them come out with that. So then as we built that big picture, every step of our process is going back to those goals that were established on that day. So then we'll have workshops and we'll draw out, like now, the history education, the social studies, the math and science. And we'll have workshops around these different subjects. And we'll say, okay, after we did the workshop, we'll say, okay, let's check back to our original voices that were brought out on the first day. Are they going back to those goals? And we'll let them evaluate and some of them will say, okay, this thing here, we're missing one of our goals that we said. And so let's reevaluate this math curriculum or this English curriculum to see how we can include that portion of our goals that we established on the first day. I would say the downside of our method, it is slower, but it's very long term thinking, and I feel like it will have much greater results in the long term.

Yeah. You have to take that time not only again, like what you did to get the ideas, but also check back. Did I interpret this correctly? Is there a way that this could work better? So I think that you need to take the time because at the end of the day, it's more about how you are delivering and working with people than getting it done.

Exactly right.

Yeah. What advice would you give for nonprofit looking to work internationally?

I would say really look at ground up approaches. Now I realize that there are situations where some organizations work in the relief world, some work in the development world, and those are two. There is some overlap, and some people would argue, well, if people are starving, you need to get them food right away. And it's better to do a top down approach. I would agree with that in some cases. I still think that there are creative ways in which you can include the communities in maintaining dignity. I think that is a huge part of how we should approach humanitarian aid and development is what we are doing, maintaining the dignity of the people. And how does it build their dignity and as long as their voices are included in it, as long as they are participants in the aid or development, then I feel like their dignity a lot of time is maintained and even bolstered. So, for example, if there's a huge situation, people need food and you need to get food to them or water, I think when you pull the people together and say, what is the best way we can get this food to you, they have community set up.

They have ways of organizing themselves almost all over the world. But sometimes we come in with a Western mindset and say, okay, this is the best way to organize yourselves, which might not necessarily be true. So I would always say even in situations of aid and relief, I think doing a ground up approach or at least getting that voice maintains that dignity and allows things that they have established already to work well. And I think it will be a lot of success in whatever project it is, if you do it that way.

Well, I feel like that is the perfect place to end up with today. Before we go, can you let our audience know how they can get in touch with you, how they can support to move mountains?

Sure. Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity and thanks for having me on the show today, Sabrina. And if you'd like to know if any of the viewers would like to know more about to move mountains, they can find us on our website at tomovemountains.org that's tomovemountains.org and then on our social media they can see a lot of our work and our tagline, our handle is @tomovemtns.

I just want to say thank you again to Ryan for coming on to the show. For those listening, I have linked his organization's website along with their social medias in the description box below. If you're interested in supporting to move mountains or getting in contact with Ryan, the website is the best place to go. And if you're interested in learning more about Fundraising Superheroes and all the things we got going on at Driven, I suggest you head over to trustdriven.com there you who listen to past podcast episodes or join our mailing list. We would love to have you as part of the Driven family. And as always, thank you so much for listening and we'll see you next time on the Fundraising Superheroes podcast.

Get Our Monthly Newsletter

Be the best non-profit you can be, get our tricks and useful podcast interviews direct to your inbox.

By Trust Driven on

Podcast Jan 26, 2022, 12:00 AM

Similar Posts


Friday,15 October, 2021

3 Nonprofit CRM Tips to Optimize Productivity
  Customer relationship management systems (CRMs) have become standard in the nonprofit industry, and for a good reason. No excel sheet can do what they do. A robust CR...

Friday,10 July, 2020

How to Tell Your Nonprofits Story in Your Donation Receipt
Donation receipts are a normal part of your organization’s operations. Still, with a little creativity and some tweaks to your template, you can turn it into an excellent ...

Monday,16 March, 2020

These Online Conferencing Services Will Help Your Nonprofit Work Remotely During COVID-19
    With the recent updates regarding COVID-19 a lot of organizations are choosing to cancel big public events and conferences for good reasons. Some are even deciding...

Check out the most powerful Non-profit Software in The World