It’s interesting that Burning Man has recently made two significant appointments at approximately the same time: the first a new committee of volunteers to focus on understanding and supporting Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism and the second a Director of Philanthropic Engagement to develop revenue streams beyond ticket sales.
Volunteers, not money, are what created Burning Man and what make it what it is today. Volunteers, not money, are what power the regionals and it is volunteers – not donors of any kind – who hold Burning Man in the palm of their hand. I think it’s actually fair to say that money literally cannot buy what happens on playa and in regional events. Money can enhance it, support it, and give someone access to it – but Burning Man, both as an event and as a culture, are only possible because people are giving. To try to professionalize it is to kill it.
But if Burning Man culture is to advance much further in the world, questions of money have to be addressed. If we want the world to be more like Burning Man, then artists have to be able to make a living. Following passions needs to be, if not profitable, at least not an economic death sentence. And the economic barriers to access and engage with Burning Man culture, or with any creative culture, need to be brought down. As Scott Timberg has written in his book “Culture Crash,” western economies are moving rapidly towards a point at which engaging in art and whimsy professionally will a luxury only accessible to the already rich.
Burning Man’s new appointments are symbolic of both the value and the limitations of volunteerism in the current socio-economic climate. On the one hand, they can make amazing things happen. On the other hand, they are walking against the wind if we continue as we are with the economic models we currently have.
The point, then, is not so much that Burning Man needs to make money – although sure, why not – as that it needs to develop new approaches to funding for people, arts, and projects, that both support our community and that other people can use. Finding development tools that empower the kind of people who are our volunteers is the best thing we can do to support them.
Burning Man’s development office needs to create the tools that will answer the question: how can an organization that holds decommodification and gifting as core values fund raise? We don’t have an answer to that question, because nobody does.
Further, these answers have to work in the economic system we have, not the one we might fantasize about. I know a lot of Burners believe we should be living in something that resembles a socialist paradise, but even if that is feasible – and history is not very encouraging here – it’s not helpful to produce tools good for an as-yet-to-be-achieved world if we want to make a difference now.
But the world we live in does include new developments like crowdfunding, block chain technology, 3d printing, social media, and exciting new experiments in everything from new housing models to micro-currencies. There are a lot of tools not previously available to volunteer-based organizations of our scale.
Burning Man’s efforts to create these development tools so far have been – let’s be honest here – pretty dismal. The ill fated use of Burning Man branded scarves as donation premiums was a bad idea from the start, and I detest Burning Man’s online store with a passion. (So much so that no, I’m not linking to it here.) The issue isn’t that I don’t think Burning Man can have a store but that any such store needs to have a clear connection to to supporting both our values and community. If we’re just putting a revenue stream out there for the sake of putting it out there, it’s better not to. If the Burning Man organization is to indeed be the stewards – or at least facilitators – of Burning Man culture, it needs to hold itself to higher standards.
That said, I don’t hold these efforts against it. Developing these tools is a significant challenge, and there isn’t a playbook. If people already knew how to do it then we wouldn’t have to figure it out. I’ve had artist after artist tell me that they learned as much from their failures as their successes: Burning Man’s development staff needs to be given the same freedom to fail.
I would suggest, however, that these failures stem in part from a misunderstanding of Burning Man’s real mission when it comes to money – which is not to raise it (though again, sure) but to develop new models for raising it. To support our community and offer new approaches that they themselves can use.
Easier said than done, of course, and easy for me to say. What the hell might that actually look like?
Here’s a thought experiment. I offer this not to suggest “hey, do it!” but to try and help in asking the right questions. To the extent this is a terrible idea, I apologize.
Right now the current crowdfunding model, used by artists intending to go to Burning Man all the time, has a simple structure: if you give me money for this, I’ll do it, and you’ll also get a reward.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but what if Burning Man were to turn it on its head? What if Burning Man were to select art projects from the previous year – that is to say, projects which had already been given to the community with no strings attached– and launch a crowdfunding campaign to support the artist after the fact?
That is to say: instead of saying “if you give me money for this, I’ll do it and you’ll get a reward,” Burning Man would say “something was given to our community that was remarkable, the artist is hoping to keep growing and giving, here’s how you can support that.” This would be a joint fundraiser: Burning Man and the artist could jointly offer premiums (nothing with the Burning Man logo, please, and no access to exclusive experiences on playa, and ideally premiums that were themselves available for free as part of the original experience if such a thing can be developed), and the artist would divide the net money raised with Burning Man.
To my mind, this scenario has several advantages:
- First, it supports artists as well as Burnng Man – thus it accomplishes our mission through the fundraising itself, as opposed to just raising funds to accomplish our mission.
- Second, because it is supporting projects that have already been given to the community (and ideally that there is a reasonable expectation will continue to be offered for free), it takes issues of commodification out of equation, or at least reduces them. There’s no quid pro quo. The art is not for sale: it’s already been given.
- Third, because the art isn’t for sale and has already been given, the motives to give to the artist (and to Burning Man) are far closer to the motives for giving a gift than purchasing a good or service. Thus Gifting is supported as well.
- Fourth, it in no way changes the nature of the experience that people have of the art itself – precisely because we are funding or a project that has already been given, the experience of the encounter with that art is unchanged. The only thing that changes is that people who were not able to see it before are now, through premiums, able to engage with it in some way if they choose.
- Fifth, it offers the artist a new avenue to directly connect with admirers and potentially advance their careers.
- Finally, it leads naturally to the creation of a new kind of online “store” for Burning Man – a web store that anchored the work of our community, and actively supporting it.
Granted, we’re likely not talking about multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns through this model, we’re definitely talking smaller-scale, small donation, campaigns. It alone probably won’t help Burning Man reach major goals. But if it does in fact provide Burning Man with additional moneys and support artists … and if it does in fact do so in a manner that is consistent with our principles … then it seems to me to be a win.
More importantly, this example – as a thought experiment – offers some specific questions we can ask ourselves about whether any proposed fundraising effort is actually consistent with our principles.
Is it important that Burning Man fundraising take values like decomodification and gifting into account? Does the example I’ve given meet this threshold? Why or why not? Is it important, or at least desirable, that Burning Man’s fundraising efforts accomplish something in their own right, rather than just raising money? If so, what else might that look like?
And, of course, would people actually support it? If they do, it’s a model that others in our community could use to support artists and efforts they believe in while developing their own capacity.
These, I suggest, are the right kinds of issues for us to be examining as we look towards the developing of a new set of tools for artists and community organizers to use.
But examining them doesn’t mean I’ve gotten it right. This is a thought experiment: it might not work for any number of reasons, and it might very well have undesired consequences. Please have at: tell me what they are. What have I missed? What have I gotten wrong? But most importantly, what does this tell us about how we can do Burning Man fundraising right?