Can Burning Man do for fundraising what it’s done for art? A thought experiment about development.

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?

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

8 Comments on “Can Burning Man do for fundraising what it’s done for art? A thought experiment about development.

  • Pooh Bear says:

    As a professional fundraiser I would say there is nothing new in adding a touch of fundraising to an activity that is primarily volunteer based. this is very common in community arts organizations where, for example, a symphony is made up primarily of volunteers, but needs to raise money for a portion of overhead not covered by ticket costs.

    My understanding is the purpose of fundraising for Burning Man is not so much to support the event but to support the BM foundation’s efforts to “take Burning Man to the wider world”. While I support that in the abstract, I suspect it will be very difficult to raise money off of it. Donors want specific impacts they can support and at this time the foundations goals are too vague. Perhaps the new director of development can help with that and focus the case for giving.

    If the efforts do indeed go to help artists produce more art for Burning Man, I suspect they could raise lots of money. The event, in its purest form, is almost universally supported by the community. It does not feel like the grander dreams of the org have really caught fire yet. I think most people would like everywhere to feel like Burning Man, but I also think most Burner’s instinct is that is not something you can make happen by throwing money at it.

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  • Larry J says:

    The answer is major donor fundraising that is handled in a professional and discrete manner by professionals that have experience raising large amounts through long-term relationship building. This does NOT mean corporate sponsorships FYI! BM art is one of the keystones to funding the entire organization – ALL the art can EASILY be funded with strong major donor fundraisers. The art can drive the whole funding structure one day. As well ticket prices SHOULD go DOWN each year (YES!) with strong major donor work. This is done quietly but with passion behind the scenes in the months between playa time. Hiring one person to tow this sled is not enough. This may require a shift in current personnel resources in the Mission District. It also means that the leadership of BM both staff and board are also available to professionally and discretely support AND participate in this process when called upon by the professional development staff. The new philanthropy position goes nowhere without top level support. Some will not like to hear this BUT this also means growing up as an organization and moving away from the cult of personality mentality which has been promoted by a few key long-term participants. Having a strong professional staff and board with effective leadership in the MissionHQ will maximize the culture and the future impact of BM in the world. Every successful organization runs into these similar issues as they grow. It is doable!! But the next two years are absolutely critical to understand if the current BM leadership (that includes the board!) will be able to answer these questions effectively. Big question mark?

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  • Lentil says:

    Interesting idea Caveat. Perhaps a way of giving the system some momentum: After the event, BM lets you direct the money you spent on vehicle passes (they could raise the prices too) to artists of your choice and/or to fund more low-income tickets.

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  • burnersxxx says:

    Great idea Caveat – in particular, the idea that Burning Man can play a role in helping develop new models of funding the arts.

    More simply, though: transparency, and a fair contract for the artists who receive official grants. Both would be an excellent start and can be implemented without having to figure out any world firsts.

    Sell some t-shirts. Pay some artists. The culture will survive.

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  • Jered says:

    Hey Caveat,

    Thanks for writing on this topic. The new positions (Director of Philanthropic Engagement, Director of of Art & Civic Engagement) were a bit of an surprise to me as well, but I’m certainly all for our community trying new things as we try to figure out what this grand, expanded mission is all about. The biggest danger is in losing our way and refusing to change course — if the new fundraising model doesn’t work, Burning Man Project should be prepared to let it “fail fast” and take it as a learning experience rather than a misguided choice.

    The thing that concerned me most about both hires is that neither is a Burning Man community member with a proven history of understanding what our culture is about. Maybe this is a fact of life due to lack of qualified candidates from the community, but it would have been nice to have seen a huge outreach to “promote from within” first.

    I worry that while both hires have stellar resumes, they may not “get” what Burning Man is about and try to push us in a commodified direction simply because it’s what they know from experience. This sort of lack of acculturation in leadership can be poison — lest I bring up the Former Board Member Who Must Not Be Named.

    Anyway, I hope I’m wrong, and that they both understand our culture and are getting strong guidance from within. Time will tell!

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  • Bob says:

    There have been a few major projects on playa where the artist was personally in debt for after the Burn. Kickstarters after the Burn to help cover that gap haven’t been successful. It’s hard to give to something that has already happened. Like paying for a movie you’ll never see, people are less likely to give to something they won’t benefit from. A new project sure, but an old one… more challenging. Plus, will artists want to share with the org? There has been a lot of grumbling about the org just putting up road blocks, paperwork, bureaucracy, and added costs to get art work out there. For example, Transpo costs are crazy, but honorium artists can’t share transpo costs with non honorium art? For those who haven’t seen the contract, look at how much the org covers and how much the artist has to. Stuff like that should be transparent. A better experiment might be to discount ticket prices for people lucky enough to buy a ticket. (Selling out every year!) At the end of checkout, there’s a list of all the honorarium art with needed tasks, materials, etc. People sign up and get a credit for future events. Artists then confirm participation at the end of the burn. This can be true for off playa stuff too. The needs have to be specific… people are less likely to give to some vague purpose if they feel it might be mismanaged. (Chocolate tacos, gold plated toilet seats, etc.) Thanks for the post.

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  • NOLAllen says:

    Serendipitous for me that I just had a conversation on this topic last night and I happen upon this article through JRS. Your idea is kind of a political spin because the expectation here is that the new funding will provide something in the future even though it is theoretically giving for a past event. But that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we’re all up front about it. Seems to me the term Commodification needs better definition here. I see many levels/layers of commodification, some of which are Ok, some are not and some are grey. This may help the Burner community better understand the issues at hand and alleviate any feelings of misappropriations.

    Bottom line here is that artists need to be paid. They need to make a living too and to assume that they will always give their art away is silly. As is mentioned above we don’t want to be relegated to only artists that can afford to do an art piece for free. We want these peeps but we always want the struggling up and comers who need financial help. I wonder if redefining commodification and then promoting this new definition would help here. Is it OK for Lowes to donate $2,000 in lumber, materials and tools in order to build an effigy? And if so how does Lowes get the recognition they are looking for in this action? Is it OK for a foundation or company to pay for the design and build of this effigy? And again how are they compensated? To me these are all very interesting questions and are ones that we in bayou country are dealing with right now. Cheers and many thanks for the article!

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  • Jess (Trouble) Thompson says:

    I love this idea. It reminds me of the Macarthur Genius Awards. You take a person (but more likely a group) of artists who have shown skill, passion and commitment by making something awesome. You give them a grant to do whatever they want. What could they create if you could fund their living expenses for a year? Send them to the Galapagos? Art comes from love, not because you are paid to do it. Enable someone who is already in love and already creating to continue to do it… what better way can we expand and share the spirit of the Burn?

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