A Guide to Gifting, Givers and Gratitude: A Treatise from the Philosophical Center

Publisher’s Note: This essay was written over a year ago, but due to Larry Harvey’s untimely death it was not released at the time. We are grateful to share it with you now, since it speaks so profoundly to some of the issues our community is facing as we evolve and grow. It was written in response to a request from the organizers of a Burning Man Regional Event, who were offered an affiliation opportunity that didn’t fit neatly within the bounds of the Principle of Decommodification, and asked for guidance from the Philosophical Center. As was his habit, Larry developed the piece slowly, thoughtfully, and collaboratively, incorporating contributions from many of his colleagues and friends. During his long tenure with Burning Man, Larry wrote extensively in this Journal and elsewhere, and anyone who wants to know more about the culture would do well to read more of his work. This may have been the last piece he wrote, but it will not be the last to be published here, as we go about the business of collecting his writings for publication.


 

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Gifts in Burning Man culture are offered unconditionally. In the case of individuals who contribute to our community, such gifts are relatively easy to accept, and it is only common courtesy to recognize these givers and their contributions. While there is no requirement that anyone accept a gift, we do not put litmus tests about politics, lifestyle, moral worth, or anything else on individuals who wish to give unconditionally, and we should accept these contributions gracefully. This is an application of the Principle of Radical Inclusion.

It is also appropriate to thank those parties who give gifts in an institutional context. If an organization proffers gifts that are consistent with our values, we should certainly find an appropriate way to thank them. This can take the form of personal, one-to-one expressions of sincere gratitude. However, when dealing with individuals, organizations and enterprises, if anything is offered with an expectation of return, though it may be a friendly favor, it is not a gift it is a transaction. Transactions aren’t a cardinal sin; they are a way of doing business, but in the case of institutions this can resemble what is known as a “co-branding opportunity,” a promotional exchange. The appearance of engaging in such a relationship without a culturally compelling reason can destroy the trust that authentic engagement depends on. This is an extension of the Principle of Decommodification.

In such situations, the standard we suggest is a default no unless there is a culturally compelling reason to say yes  and determining this should be done on a case-by-case basis. There is no substitute for deep thought and engagement, and a standardized test is, in and of itself, a failure of our culture to engage it can dehumanize experience.

But there are some approaches we can use and questions we can ask that can help bring clarity to this issue.

 Finding Culturally Compatible Partners

In order to determine if there is a culturally compelling reason to say yes to an institutional gifting opportunity, we should at a minimum ask:

Are the values of the agency wishing to contribute aligned with our own?

  • What is its structure? Is it corporate? Nonprofit? Community-based? A government agency?
  • What is its mission? What are they trying to do in the world? The essential mission of the Burning Man Project is to disseminate the culture of our community throughout the world, and it is our maxim that the means that we employ must always be cognate with our values and goals. How closely do the values and goals of the organization match our own?
  • What are its principles? What do they stand for? How aligned are their stated principles with our 10 Principles?
  • What is its business model? How do they actually do what they do? How do they behave? Whatever their stated principles and mission, what means do they use and what results do they get? Remember: nonprofit organizations can have rapacious business models, while for-profit businesses can act ethically.

What is the relative value of this association?

  • How are we benefiting from this association?
  • How are they?
  • If we are being asked to contribute substantially more to this relationship than we’re receiving, would we do it as a gift, without asking for anything in return? Would the other party consider turning their contribution into a gift? Have we asked?
  • How much does what we are receiving directly benefit our community, or promote our values in the world, as opposed to simply being helpful in the moment?

What is the depth of story?

  • Can you explain, without bullshit or spin, why this relationship is meaningful to Burners or to Burning Man culture?
  • What more is happening beyond an exchange of endorsements or one consideration in exchange for another? Anything?
  • Is this association genuinely supporting our mission and values, or will it ultimately distract from them? An unconditional gift can often be used in ways that truly fit the needs of the recipient. But conditional relationships can come with obligations, and the less such a relationship actually contributes to our mission, the heavier the burden of those obligations grows. There may be times when givers wish to specify exactly how their gifts will be employed. But we have found that when such well-intended contributions are in conflict with our values or our mission, it is often impossible to harmonize the vision of the donor with our own.

What is the authenticity of the relationship?

  • Do we have a history of good relations with the entity wishing to contribute?
  • How sensitive have they been in the past, and how accommodating are they now, to our cultural needs? Why would we associate with an organization that has not treated our cultural concerns as important?
  • How did this idea come up? Was it proposed by their marketing department, or did someone at the company have an experience at a Burning Man event and is looking for a way to thank us? One example of this is Google’s famous use of Burning Man’s symbol in conjunction with their logo. Situated within one of the “O’s,” it appeared for one day only on their website, and the Burning Man organization was not consulted. But in the event, we judged this to be a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm and gratitude, not a cynical exploitation of our iconography and demographic.

This is not a checklist: it’s not that we can automatically connect with entities that meet 90% of these requirements, but refuse if they meet fewer. But it does illustrate the issues we should focus on, and highlights the ideal form of cooperation. While not a checklist, it can indicate a hazardous zone: the more you have to struggle with these questions, the less likely it is that the suggested relationship will live up to the values of our community.

                                    Beware of Branding

“True stories, not brandscould be our informal motto on this issue.

Accepting a donation puts the focus on the work we’re doing and the culture we are building, but a commercial logo puts more emphasis on the transaction and can take the relationship perilously out of context. The Burning Man organization does not have an advertising budget, and in its internal discussions avoids the word “brand,” preferring “identity” or “reputation.” Reputation has a moral dimension. It is something earned by actions in a social arena in which people are immediately present to one another: its context is an actual community, not a demographic. Commercial brands and their attendant advertising campaigns do not issue from the lived reality of a community. They project images onto products and they cater to consumers. More meaningful symbols spontaneously emanate out of cultural interaction. At the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert, team members in various departments create their own logos to express a sense of group belonging, and the Burning Man symbol itself derives from a hand-drawn cartoon by a participant on a postcard sent to Burning Man headquarters it was not produced by focus groups.

We do not intend to fetishize a strict “no logos” rule. But it is far, far better to find a way to thank donors directly through authentic and expressive gestures than to insinuate a logo near our own iconography. And if in very special situations you must use a non-commercial logo, it is better to locate it in a discretely separate context where it is distant from any community gathering places (virtual and otherwise). Gifts should enable participants to embrace immediate experience, but they should never be allowed to intrude upon or substitute for such experience. There should be no suggestion that anything in our community is “sponsored by” or “brought to you by.” This is even more vital when dealing with Burning Man’s own iconography. Except in cases of truly deep and sincere relationships, other institutions should not be enabled to appropriate our symbols.

Framing Has Value

When contemplating gifting opportunities, you must be sensitive to how they are discussed. In the case of individual patrons, a donation shouldn’t be a secret unless the donor prefers to remain anonymous. But we do need a commitment from businesses and other organizations to talk about their relationship with Burning Man in ways that do not place our community in the position of looking like a commercial or endorsing entity. This is the difference between working with an organization that respects our values and what we are trying to do in the world, and an organization that does not. This should be laid out not just in principle, but achieved through constant practice: frank and open discussions within your team or your community can help ensure the language that you publicly employ reflects our culture.

One final thought. This discourse is as much about sensibility and intuition, soulful qualities, as it is about rules and formal criteria. Steer clear of dogma in all of your discussions, and keep in mind the motto of the Philosophical Center: Belief is Thought at Rest.


Top photo by unknown photographer

About the author: Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey

Born in 1948, Larry Harvey grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco, and soon discovered the city's thriving underground art scene. In 1986 he founded Burning Man at a local beach, and guided its progress from that moment until his death in 2018. Larry was Founding Board Member and Chief Philosophic Officer of Burning Man Project. He scripted and co-curated Burning Man's annual art theme and collaborated with artists in creating aspects of the art theme and the design of Black Rock City. Larry also wrote articles and essays for the Project's website. As spokesperson for Burning Man, he was frequently interviewed by reporters, and lectured on subjects as diverse as art, religion, civic planning and the rise of cyber-culture in the era of the Internet. Larry was also a political planner, supervising the organization's lobbying efforts and frequently attending meetings with state, county and federal agencies.

6 Comments on “A Guide to Gifting, Givers and Gratitude: A Treatise from the Philosophical Center

  • Don Gilroy says:

    Tough and interesting times. This is bordering on being half pregnant in the decommoditization sense. I’ve never been to bm. But hope to soon. Love and respect always.

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  • Peon says:

    I’m glad the Mr. Harvey is still writing articles and leading the event. We all stand behind him and can’t wait for him to announce next year’s theme

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  • Theresa says:

    Beautiful article. Much food for thought not just for living out the 10 Principles, but for our own individual lives as we endeavor to give the best within us without thought of any recompense of any form. Or God forbid, likes and comments;). Continue resting in power, Larry. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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  • Absolutely agreed, however shocking with the decommodification pamphlet received via email this past fall. I’d have to look it up, but it basically went like this; comodified object goes into washing machine and comes out the same while basically having a label stating no one cares. How false is that really though when you go on playa and you see tons of budget and u-hall tucks, and not to mention a huge glow sign on my way out of playa 50 ft in the air obviously promoting some company. Decomodification has always been something I strived for, respected and was entirely shocked once on playa that yeah some things totally were comodified. But, you still have all these products in and around the city have have not been covered up, refrained from using or making up your own label. Obviously that would be I’m sure a burden and a waste of several additional items you now had to bring including stickers for those branded beverages in a can, sure you have a cup you carry but that could be used for shots (don’t forget to cover up that branded Jack D. Bottle. I have been guilty of co-mingling once, and it was my own personal art that was not being sold, it was strictly shown in a photo with my card to show an example of the type of art service i could provide for another person should they look to hire my artistic services, and if they had asked for an exact replica they would have been told no that it was against my beliefs to sell it. Do i give it in gifts at regionals sure, most people do that too. However, It’s especially heartbreaking when you do a Google search for burning man and several items and multiple pages come up in your search selling everything festival from A-Z.

    I would love to see the community get back to the values they preach. Gifting is a gift, and appreciation can also be exactly that by donating to the hundreds of playa projects out there. Application of that logo on anything in my eyes should only be for the burn. But, and here in lies the conundrum, when you’re fundraising to be able to provide such a gift on playa not everyone can just reach into their pocket and make it happen, if they do i can guarantee you mostly they are not the artist creating that gift. So what does that mean? Does it mean a participant is then paying for xyz trinkit to be produced with the playa symbol? Is that artist donating their time for free to make that happen just because it has the BM symbol? Of course not. There are still product and production costs to be paid for after all not everyones time is free, there is a line of cost in there unless you find an artist that is willing to produce the item for the cost of materials, and material only even if it is costing them a normal paid working life should they fail in fundraising to help differ those costs. (shameless self promotion i need a job or my gifts won’t happen to pay for materials)

    When a large project or building is built, and there are fundrIsers for over 100,000k is that only materials? Or is someone or someones team getting paid hourly as in survival pay or some may call it a salary? Is that not in a sense going against decommodification? And if so why aren’t volunteers getting paid like Dpw? Granted it’s a large event and work needs to be done, but at what cost? It is humanly possible to get everyone to volunteer? Of course not. If that were the case boards and ceos would also not be paid, and there would be no need for LLCs. Until BM understands what NON-proffit really means im not so sure they have place to judge. But i just might be the dumb monkey continuing to argue the principal for the sake of debate. As some have said (not I) Decomodofication is the best scam burning man ever came up with. They profit off ticket cost and mainly get the work for free. Few and far between playa jobs get paid. Please correct me if I’m wrong, last i checked they didn’t even have enough comp tickets to go with workers that volunteered 60 hours for the week/event without going over the population cap.

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  • Timothy G Green says:

    my god this is so over thought out. its not necessary, do it if you want . don’t expect a thing or its not a gift.
    why is there a blog to discuss this?
    more San Francisco meddeling

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