Conquering the Unconquerable: What Nonprofits Can Learn from Surfing the World’s Greatest Wave

Brooke Battle
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Brooke Battle

Categories: Fundraising

The recent issue of the Smithsonian’s magazine tells the story of The Epic Quest to Ride the World’s Greatest Wave.

In short, it’s a story of two unlikely characters - the first a poor fishing village (known for death) inhibited by a wave the size of a 9-story building and the second an award-winning surfer with a turbulent background who, after bringing some calm into his personal life, finally sees an email written 5 years earlier inviting him to surf this wave.   For Dino Casimiro (a resident of the village), his 2005 email to Garrett McNamara (record-breaking surfer) was a longshot. His village needed an income source as the fishing industry declined. Casimiro’s idea? If McNamara can conquer the wave, they could attract a piece of the surfing-related tourism industry.

Everyday, nonprofits conquer the unconquerable - the 100ft wave, the incurable disease, generational poverty, dysfunctional systems, well-financed special interest groups or the cycle of abuse.   What can we learn from McNamara’s quest to conquer the Nazare wave?

  1. Accept the challenge - Take the longshot.    Whether you are Casimiro sending the email to McNamara or McNamara accepting the challenge, what longshot can you take for your cause this week?   Like Nazare, it may be 5 years before it pays off.
  2. Experience matters.  One of my favorite elements of this story is the repeated acknowledgement that experience matters in this quest.  To surf a wave the size of a building, one relies on wisdom and experience more than agility. As noted by former pro-surfer Jamie Brisick “It more favors experience and ocean knowledge, hence you get an older, wiser bunch of athletes who are generally a lot more fun to talk to.”
  3. Research.   Before attempting to surf this epic wave, McNamara spent a year learning about the waves pexels-photo-691637talking with everyone from body-boarders, surfers of the smaller waves and even the Portugese Navy.
  4. You might be ignored.  When McNamara arrived in Nazare, the locals ‘turned away from him’ and he was surprised by the lack of hospitality (in a country known for it).   He learned that they did not want to establish a relationship with him as they thought he would die. This was a city of people who had lost to the wave.   Nonprofit causes are similar - seeking a cure only for hopes to be dashed, using funding for a cutting edge approach when others have not worked will mean that the path to success feels lonelier than expected.
  5. Recognizing ‘your wave’.  The day McNamara surfed the 78ft wave (then the world record) he did not intend to do so.  In fact, he assisted another surfer in reaching the waves that day but when that surfer lost his board - he switched places.  Most importantly, he worked to remember that he “wasn’t there to set a world record but for the love of it.”
  6. Breathe.   McNamara attributes his success on the waves to breathing exercises which help connect him to the sea.  He practiced this breathing exercise on the board just prior to taking on that first, big wave in Nazare.  For nonprofit execs, it’s easy to become panicked about funding sources, the next big presentation or even the board meeting.   Breathe through it so that you can see clearly.
  7. Others will follow your success.  After McNamara successfully conquered the wave, surfers followed.   Laying a path for success with your cause opens the door for others in your sector to follow.   

The big difference, of course, is that a wave can continue to crash ashore without being surfed.  Your cause needs to be conquered.