Burning Man is launching a new all-volunteer team designed to preserve and support Burning Man’s essence as a volunteer-driven organization and to teach those values and practices. I sat down with Burning Man co-founder Harley DuBois to learn more about Burning Man’s volunteer spirit and how this new group will carry it forward.
JM: What is the new team, and why is now the time to create it?
Harley DuBois: We’re in the third phase of volunteerism at Burning Man. We’ve written a manual that distills what we learned in the first phase, as we built the event and its culture. The second phase was about succession planning for the founders, bringing in new blood, not being ossified. But now, becoming a nonprofit changed the landscape. With our expanded, global scope and mission to create positive cultural change beyond the playa, we’ve grown so much that we need to recommit to who we are, and who we are is volunteers. Every one of us was a volunteer at the beginning, but the organization is evolving quickly. We have to infuse the spirit of volunteerism into everything we’re doing. It has to remain part of our DNA, or we’re going to lose our identity.
Volunteerism was never hardwired into the organization itself, because the spirit of it was so innate to the founders that we all had our own ways of doing it. Now that we’re reorganizing, we can hardwire in volunteerism. This new team is our first effort to do that.
What better way to do it than to create a strategic body dedicated purely to that thinking? That body can advise any branch of our internal workings. Once we’ve got that down, we can export those concepts to anyone who finds themselves in similar situations.
We’re starting with seven people. We wanted to have it small enough that it could be flexible. I’m going to chair the first four meetings just to get them going, and then they’ll be deciding their own governance. If they want me to be engaged after that, they’ll decide how they want that to work. They’ll decide on the processes, how often they meet, what the term is, what the scope and mission are. I don’t want to come at it from my perspective as a founder. They won’t have any paid staff on the team. That changes everything. It gives it a different flavor. Since this team is here to represent the truest flavor of our organization — which is volunteer-driven — they have to have that.
Update 11/19, 2:50 PM: some people wrote in asking for more info about who is on this team and how they were selected, so I got more comments from Harley and am adding that in line here:
The first members of this group will establish what the process for future selection to membership will be. To find them, we put out a call to all managers for the entire organization, and they gave us their best candidates, who were then vetted by the Volunteer Squad and selected by staff. This first group is: Witchy, Helen Hickman, Jocko, Maryann “Orange” Hulsman, Robin “Affinity” Mingle, Sarah “Sabwafaire” Turner, and Stacy “Keeper” Black.
The staff members who were involved in this process will go to the meetings and be the team’s bridge to the office. We don’t have a name for them yet. It’s Vav from Tech, DA from DPW, Marcia from the Café and Special Events, and Stuart Mangrum the Director of Education. It’s their job to transport information between the team and the office staff to help jump-start this.
At the 2015 event, at the gathering at First Camp early in the week, all the co-founders were honored for their first Burning Man volunteer jobs. It was amazing to hear how you all got your start and imagine the path from that volunteer work to where you are now. Can you tell us about your volunteer path?
I ended up at Burning Man in 1991 at the very last minute, not totally prepared, but I knew vaguely what I was getting into. I was the “nutritional consultant”, and I had the morning shift of feeding the crew. Since I was up at sunrise, I had coffee, so I met everybody and got all kinds of gifts, and I met everyone I should have met. After doing that for a while, I started organizing all the volunteers for the Café and for the Gate. I’ve never really been to Burning Man, I’ve always worked it. I was a volunteer for eight years, and I was the last founder to leave my other job.
In 1994, I came up with the idea of placing Theme Camps, and in those days, when you came up with an idea, you had to do it, so I became the city planner. In 1997, I came up with Greeters and Playa Info. Everybody thought Greeters was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard, and I said, “Screw you, I’m doing this anyway.” Then the next year, they all had opinions about it. Then the third year, they all liked it. That process became known as the Three Year Rule of Burning Man.
Also that year, when the event was on private land, Marian and I together came up with Earth Guardians. Before you knew it, I was running this whole department called Community Services, which is still mostly volunteer-run to this day. That’s the department that includes Airport, Arctica Ice Sales, the Burner Express Bus, the Department of Mutant Vehicles, Center Camp Café, Earth Guardians, Gerlach-Empire Shuttle Bus, Greeters, Lamplighters, Placement, Playa Info, Recycle Camp, and the Volunteer Resource Team. Terry “Retro” Schoop, Marcia Crosby and Audrey Whaling manage the thirteen Community Services teams now.
So volunteering is clearly the core of how this whole Burning Man thing happened and continues to happen. But now we have this big year-round organization and even outside partner organizations with whom we work. How is the volunteer path different now?
The first kind of help that an outside entity asks us for is advice on life safety issues, then they ask us for Ranger training, and then, once they’ve had a successful event, they ask us how to recruit volunteers. We don’t need to refer to our Volunteer Coordinator Handbook ourselves anymore, but all those people out there need it. We’re really good teachers about that. We’re ready to help people scale, modularize our information and give it out to people.
Sometimes, people have tried everything we’ve ever tried and still can’t find their answer. I tell them, ”Clearly we don’t have the answer for you, but I’ll bet you there’s a Regional Group out there that does.” So after we get good at teaching volunteerism directly, networking everyone together is the next step. Then it becomes people finding their own solutions.
The only thing that’s changed about getting bigger is that we have to do work to stay closer to our roots and not forget who we are. And that’s what this new team is about.
Some volunteer teams, like Lamplighters, have a dramatic, ceremonial role. Other teams, like Gate, are totally nuts-and-bolts. Most are somewhere in between. How does someone who wants to volunteer find a fit?
Some volunteer opportunities are just really easy to engage with. They’re fun, easy beginner-friendly, feeder things. That’s things like the Greeters. They are our feeders. Without the Greeters, we wouldn’t have our Gate, our DPW, our ARTery volunteers. Low-barrier-to-entry volunteer opportunities can help you decide what your next level is, which could of course be staying a Greeter for life. Once a team is established, they decide their own nature. It took Lamplighters about seven years to find that ritual feeling. DPW took no time at all to find their hard-working, hard-playing spirit. You want people to be able to wonder whether they’ve “got that in them” and want to be a part of it. And it has to be permeable enough for people to move from one opportunity to the next.
Do you think there are differences between volunteering with participant-run teams versus staff-run teams? Are all Burning Man volunteers part of the same community? Are they all a part of this new meta-team?
You can slice it and dice it however you want to. You can quantify all the departments and say there are almost 10,000 volunteers. You can say it’s 70,000 people. You can say it’s everyone related to everyone touched by Burning Man, and it’s hundreds of thousands. Why draw a line? Some people like to. We draw lines when we need to Whatever feels good.
So I also got my start as a volunteer and was one for five years, but the nature of my work with the Communications Team meant I could participate from anywhere — which was great — but I didn’t have the camaraderie of an in-person team. How will the new program serve people who volunteer remotely as the scope of what Burning Man is and does spreads across the globe?
It’s a double-edged sword. Many years ago I took a course in volunteerism by Betty Stallings at the Volunteer Center in San Francisco. She’d become the first person I hired to teach volunteerism to our entity. It was so clear that I was operating on a higher level than the other people in the class. Afterward, she said our organization was on the cutting edge of volunteerism. Most people she dealt with felt like volunteers just created more management issues, but not so with us. But also, we already had remote volunteers then, which was cutting-edge. The technology is better now, obviously, and we have a little budget to support those relationships better. We’ve gotten more successful at it, and we have a lot of it happening. I can’t think of a team right now that doesn’t have somebody in a different time zone.
The issues are still the same: the person feels disconnected, it takes extra effort to keep them in the loop. Whatever they’re doing is sometimes off the mark because of a cultural difference or something. But everyone’s willing to accommodate that. We have such amazing quality of people that we want to accommodate that, and it just feels good. It will never be perfect, but it’s very satisfying.