GLC 2016: Volunteerism, the Backbone of Burner Culture

At the 10th annual Global Leadership Conference this past weekend, volunteerism was the main topic of two workshops. Why were volunteers the focus of so much discussion? Because incredible, transformative, art-filled cities of weirdos don’t build themselves.

A “do-ocracy” is “an organizational structure in which individuals choose roles and tasks for themselves and execute them. Responsibilities attach to people who do the work, rather than elected or selected officials.” Bam. This is the heart and soul of Burning Man. Forget the music, forget the art, don’t worry about the workshops or dream about that amazing connection you made with that guy dressed like a bunny rabbit at the porta-potties. The do-ocracy of Burning Man is one of the most transformative things about the event. People are empowered by their mobility within our fairly non-hierarchical community and their ability to create change.

The center of this do-ocracy is the volunteers. They greet you at gate, they show up months early to create the trash fence, they stay late to de-MOOP the desert, they provide support during emergencies, they serve you coffee in the café and ice at Arctica, they give you Exodus traffic reports on the radio on your ride back to the world beyond the playa. There are countless ways volunteerism — sparked by our do-ocracy — forms the foundation of Burning Man. Without it there would be no Burn.

The discussion of volunteerism at the GLC was mostly about supporting, encouraging and collecting volunteers. Burning Man Regional Contacts and community leaders from all over the world brainstormed and shared their tools and tips on keeping volunteers happy and continuing the spirit of do-ocracy by increasing the volunteer force.

Schwag was a repeatedly suggested perk, and clearly we all love our hoodies, t-shirts, pins and patches. It’s a small piece that connects us to our “home” and the roles and responsibilities that we proudly take on in BRC. The material stuff is great, we all enjoy gifting, but what struck a chord during the workshop was stated perfectly by Hellkitty from Flipside: “Being a part of the club is the schwag.” We aren’t in it for the Temple Guardian bandana or the DPW hoodie. The true gift is the community and ownership that these volunteer groups create. By creating a culture rich in history and ritual within volunteer departments, people feel connected and invested.

Burnout still happens no matter how much community and ritual we create within our volunteer groups. What can we do to stop burnout? Take care of your people! No one wants to get stuck on a parking lot shift for ten hours because they were forgotten about, but sometimes people fall through the cracks. How can change that? Fluffers! By having designated “cheerleaders” or “Burning angels” who make the rounds, hand out water and snacks, check in with volunteers and provide encouragement, we can make sure all our volunteers have what they need throughout their shifts. Gratitude and acknowledgement are also crucial for supporting volunteers. Leaders can give personalized, specific compliments to volunteers, which acknowledges their hard work and dedication. Everyone in BRC and at Regional Events can show gratitude to volunteers by delivering high-fives and compliments as often as possible.

Our do-ocracy and volunteerism are vital. They do more than build our city or run our Regionals. They let accountants learn welding, hairdressers drive forklifts, grandpas build scaffolding. They allow us to transcend our limited ideas of self that to which we’re restricted in our default lives. If we want to grow and spread this kind of transformative magic, we need to stand up and thank our volunteers, and to volunteer ourselves.


Top photo by Sidney Erthal

About the author: Jessi Sprocket

Jessi Sprocket

Jessi Sprocket is a founding member of Raised By Wolves and the editor-in-chief of Burn After Reading Magazine. She also dabbles in large scale metal sculpture and is currently a resident artist at Reno Art Works. Originally hailing from the East Coast, Sprocket made her first pilgrimage via car from Philly to BRC in 2010. Since then she's been pulled closer and closer to the Black Rock Desert and currently resides in the weird magic that is Reno.

5 Comments on “GLC 2016: Volunteerism, the Backbone of Burner Culture

  • Dustin says:

    I’ve been volunteering 7 of my 11 years going to TTITD. It’s enriched the experience exponentially, I’ve made many dear friends and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. I also really enjoy early entry, it’s like being at a Burn of years past.

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  • Me says:

    I used to love volunteering at BMHQ & at BM events in San Francisco, but my volunteere experiences in 2015 left me feeling less-than-willing to do the same in 2016. Too much ego on the part of volunteer organizers, not enough gratitude for the volunteers.

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  • Rich says:

    How do you reconcile the concept of do-ocracy with having “Global Leadership Conferences” and a multi-level hierarchy with the person on top making $200k plus a year?

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  • Timeless says:

    Let’s hear it for the non Honorarium funded artists! Actually we are funded — by ourselves… It’s a type of volunteerism that some don’t realize exists. It’s not really magic and artists who make their loving in the arts have a particular challenge keeping up with their own expenses while producing and performing an installation.

    To quell the losses this artist has devised a new way of funding art and our Larry said of “Fundiversify” that “It mandates that art move through communities. By doing so, it would seem to accrue both cultural value, as we understand it, and marketplace value, which works as an incentive for the patron to sponsor the artist.

    Volunteerism has it’s place but nobody can do it for a living. For that I’m seeking not donors but investors and just in time for this year’s philanthropic theme. Please click my name here to learn more…and thank you for sharing with people who may be able to help make this pilot project a success…so more self-funded artists won’t have to be perpetual volunteers…

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  • Jimmy James says:

    If BM can’t get their stuff together on ticket sales last two years, just HOW can you expect us to volunteer for anything? Unable to get tickets after volunteering for eight (8) years!
    HELLO ???…!

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