Burning Man Project’s 2016 990: Finding Our Footing and Funding Fly Ranch

Listen up dusty friends, it’s that magical time of year again: time to read the financials! We’ve published our Form 990 for 2016, which means you see what it costs to clean out most of the West Coast of its porta-potties for a week, how many times in a year someone in BRC needs a forklift, and how much we’re investing in the year-round Burning Man community locally and globally.

For the uninitiated, the Form 990 is basically our organization’s annual tax return, showing the money we spent and brought in (and from where). While a nonprofit’s 990 is typically posted publicly on sites like Guidestar.com, we make an effort each year to decode its dozens of pages of digits for our community (for a deeper look, check out this list of FAQs from our 2014 990).

So what do the number say for 2016? Actually, not much is all that surprising. The most interesting big number you’ll see is our incoming Contributions and Grants, which jumped significantly in 2016 because of the donations raised to support the acquisition of Fly Ranch — you do remember that, right? That also jumped up some other numbers, which we’ll explain below. Otherwise, what you’ll see in our 2016 financials is that our nonprofit is starting to find a groove, build out our programs, and invest in the future.

As in prior years, we’ve compiled the 2016 financial numbers into a (figuratively) digestible pie chart that breaks down the categories and provides more context.

To see how these numbers translate into action, go check out the 2016 Burning Man Project Annual Report.

2016 Financial Highlights

  • Donations to Burning Man Project from the public increased massively, from $1,329,325 in 2015 to $8,074,456 in 2016. Wait, what? This was mainly because of the generous donations that helped us purchase Fly Ranch (see more below).
  • Grants provided by Burning Man Project to artists and community leaders amounted to $1,518,490 in 2016. That brought the total to $3,850,310 since the transition to a nonprofit was completed in 2014.
  • Burning Man Arts and Civic Engagement (ACE) program expenses were more than $3.5 million in 2016, an increase of around $250,000 over 2015’s total. For more about how we’re investing in arts and civic projects locally and globally, check out the ACE section of our 2016 Annual Report.

You can download and peruse the complete 2016 Form 990 on our Public Documents page.

Frequently Asked Questions

For a list of additional general FAQs, see our previous 2014 and 2015 Annual Report and 990 Announcements.

Q. What’s the big picture? What does Burning Man do as a nonprofit organization?

A. So glad you asked. Funds remaining after covering the cost of producing Black Rock City are used to fund cultural projects and initiatives. This includes year-round staffing and infrastructure to support the administration and management of our Regional Network, Civic and Global Art Grants, the Regional Network, Burners Without Borders, our fellowship program, and the annual Global Leadership Conference for community leaders. What do we not spend money on? Advertising and promotion (not a dime).You can learn all about our nonprofit programs in our 2016 Annual Report.

Q. What are the difference between Programming, Management and General, and Fundraising Expenses?

A. Nonprofit expenses fall into one of three categories: Program Services Expenses, Management & General, and Fundraising.“Program Services Expenses” is money being used directly in fulfilling our mission of fostering Burning Man culture. “Administration” expenses are related to the overall function and management of the nonprofit organizations. Included in this category are accounting, admin and legal services, as well as some of the bureaucratic necessities (taxes, licensing, etc.) of managing a nonprofit of our size. “Fundraising” expenses are any costs incurred while raising money for furthering our programming activities. This includes any salaries, events, or travel done for the purpose of soliciting donations.

Q. Why did Assets and Contributions jump so many millions of dollars in 2016?

A. Two words: Fly Ranch.

The $6.5 million acquisition of Fly Ranch happened thanks to the generosity of Burners who felt called to give back to the community. The money did not come from ticket revenue, vehicle passes, coffee sales, nor any previously existing source of Burning Man income. In fact, the gifts were only possible because of our transition into a nonprofit organization.

The purchase was the major reason why Burning Man Project’s asset values increased from $14,763,766 in 2015 to $24,413,461 and contributions went up from $1,329,325 to $8,074,456 in 2016, as reflected in the 990.

Q. Why does Burning Man keep an “operating reserve?”

A. As we touched on in last year’s 990 report FAQs, an “operating reserve” is a safety net in case of unexpected expenses or losses of income. It’s cash set aside in case of a rainy day (or rather a rainy month of August). As of December 31, 2016, Burning Man Project’s operating reserve was $3,149,258.

This is made up of total cash ($8,575,542) minus our liabilities ($4,490,690) and restricted funds ($935,594), which equals $3,149,258.

For context, our reserve is just over one month of Burning Man Project’s average operating costs. As the nonprofit continues to grow and we expand our program areas around the world, we will work to ensure the security of the event in Black Rock City, the organization, and the global community at large. In short, the operating reserve protects Burning Man, and having one is a recommended business practice for any nonprofit organization.

Q. Why is there an art grant for Plug ’N Play LLC? I thought Burning Man was taking a stand against Plug ’n Play camping?

A. Yeah… that really doesn’t look good, does it? It’s nothing as salacious as it sounds. This is the cheeky name of the LLC behind the artist group (Plug 4 Play) that conceptualized and built the Plug ’N Play Honorarium art piece in 2016. You may remember it — the piece consisted of six wooden structures ranging from 14 to 30 feet high (five quad electrical outlets and an extension cord plug), and at the end of the week we burned it all down with six fiery explosions.


Top photo by George Post

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Burning Man

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man's Communications Team.

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