Stories From the City: How Flat Tire Cafe Went From Non-Functioning to Non-Profit

This post is part of the Stories From the City series and highlights:

* Benefits of organizing a camp as a 501c7 non-profit
* How to leverage inclusivity and cooperation of camp leadership
* How to weather a change in camp leadership

The following story is about a theme camp that provides playa-critical bike repair services and serves cold brew coffee, but the challenges they faced and the solutions they found could be about any camp.

Between the 2016 and 2017 Burns, the crew at Flat Tire Cafe (previously “SNAP Camp”) found itself in an existential dilemma. Campers felt dissatisfied with the direction the original camp leadership had taken, a not uncommon problem as camps grow and change over time.

As current co-leader Chris “Athena” Fast recalls: “The original founder had become so distrustful of anyone else having authority that little democracy remained in decision-making, a lack of transparency existed with regard to how camp fees were spent, and no one knew who paid for what.”

In early 2016, the various leaders who had volunteered so much time to make the camp better had a serious discussion about this with the founder, and it was agreed that the leads would have more autonomy that year in an attempt to spread accountability and participation across camp functions. However, without clear rules and policies, this resulted in a lot of different people fighting for leadership. Major control issues remained.

“Emotions would get charged, things would get out of hand, and the great ideas and excitement from some of the members became struggles that resulted in people deciding they wouldn’t come back anymore,” Athena says. “After losing some great people, everyone in the camp knew that the leadership structure needed to change.”

Roll up, roll up for all your caffeine and bike care needs (Photo by Mark Mennie)

After the power struggle and frustrations of 2016, the camp leaders and founder had some major disagreements about how to move forward. Many camp leaders wanted to see the camp grow into a fully democratic environment where everyone had ownership in gifting and service, and everyone felt involved in camp decisions.

In early 2017, the leaders Charlie “Answer Man” Guthrie, Vicky “Bender” Sarmiento, Will “Freezer” Frazier, Athena, and Rasheed “Ra” Robinson decided this couldn’t continue. As painful as it would be to have a difficult conversation with their friend and founder, it was either that or watch their beloved camp die.

“This was very difficult,” Athena explains. “We didn’t want to kick a camper out, especially not a founder. But at the same time it was like, ‘Okay, either this whole camp falls apart and none of us ever come back again, and we go find other camps, losing all this invested time that we have in this camp that we love, or we try to figure out how we make a change.’”

Their goal: cultivate a culture of inclusive decision-making. Their solution: reconfigure themselves as a non-profit, specifically a 501(c)7 tax-exempt ‘social club.’ 501(c)7 organizations, unlike 501(c)3, cannot take tax deductible donations and do not function as a charity. 501(c)7 organizations function as a pool of resources for the mutual benefit of its members.

A camper helps one of the many Burners who drop in for repairs to their trusty wheeled steads (Photo by Mark Mennie)

For a Burning Man camp, this is an ideal setup to gain the benefits of non-profit status while keeping the paperwork to a minimum and incurring no additional annual costs (provided all the money is only used for the camp activities).

Everything must be transparent and therefore removes the question of “What do you do when one person goes rogue and isn’t acting in the best interests of the group?” It also allows for a clear process of voting and election, so it never becomes an issue to make course corrections or remove someone from a leadership role. Additionally, 501(c)7 status adds a level of legal accountability and oversight  that tends to keep people ethical.

Budgets have to be set each year, approved, and properly divided among the number of members attending. A clear picture of where that money goes and how much is left over is provided at the end of the year to the board and voting members. Any major expenses or changes in budget from year to year must be voted on and approved by the majority and expenses are reimbursed only after receipts are submitted.

Establishing their camp as a formal non-profit entity allowed Flat Tire Cafe to transfer leadership diplomatically and delicately. Athena says the camp presented the leadership change as necessary “to make the camp an entity of its own, aside from each individual in it.”

As Flat Tire Cafe underwent this process, they transferred not only the mantle of leadership but also the physical and legal ownership of the camp’s equipment, which the non-profit bought from the camp founders.

They set up a board of directors that all the campers voted in. They used the board, in combination with another round of inclusive voting, to elect camp leads. Leads were then given a large amount of autonomy within their roles but were also charged with adhering to the legal requirements of the 501(c)7 structure, including fiscal accountability through yearly reports. The camp continues to hold these votes annually to elect new leads each year and ensure officers of the 501(c)7 are selected democratically.

Ra using his vocal skills to pull in people to the cafe (Photo by Mark Mennie)

In addition to a smooth transfer of camp leadership, there were other important benefits:

  • Campers felt more involved as well as accountable.
  • Financial transparency improved.
  • Rules and regulations could be based on proven legal structures rather than personal ideation.
  • Checks and balances were easy to institute and monitor.
  • The new system facilitated cultural change, from one of personal leadership to one of collective participation and sharing.

Flat Tire Cafe happened to have a camp member, Athena, who specialized in organizational structure and HR, and knew how to set up entities like the non-profit structure they chose. But even if a camp doesn’t have an expert like Athena, resources for setting up nonprofits are readily available online.

The basic process can be undertaken on your own by using the Secretary of State resources in your local state (or the state you are setting up in) to file the appropriate documents. Samples of bylaws are easy to find online as well, and you can always find an attorney or business setup firm to help for a nominal fee.

Another good place for resources is the IRS’s webpage for social clubs and other non-profit organizational models. Numerous other free resources can be found by searching ‘How to set up a non-profit.’

Going into their second year as a 501(c)7, Athena and her co-leads Stephen “Escape” Fast and Freezer say the non-profit structure has moved their camp culture in a positive direction. Whether other camps choose a formal non-profit structure or stay with more informal systems, Escape recommends basing decisions on the camp and not on yourself.

“Don’t make the camp your baby. It’s collaborative, both for all the campers and for Burning Man as a whole. Decisions you make can benefit yourself as well as the camp, but should be for the camp foremost,” Escape says.

Top photo: Ra jumping for joy (or maybe from caffeination) in front of Flat Tire Cafe (Photo by Mark Mennie)

About the author: Ben Buchholz

Ben Buchholz

Ben Buchholz (a.k.a NotBlue) has written several books and articles, including "One Hundred and One Nights", the forthcoming non-fiction book "The Tightening Dark", and an ongoing writers advice column called "The Path to Professionalizing" at The Writer. He's spent more than 20 years in the US Army, working as a Foreign Area Officer out of various embassies throughout the Middle East and now serves as the CEO of Nthos Solutions, based in San Diego. NotBlue has been part of the Big Imagination (747) team for the past three years, where he had the awesome experience of camping with his son, Jack, who attended as a 16-yr old in 2018.

5 Comments on “Stories From the City: How Flat Tire Cafe Went From Non-Functioning to Non-Profit

  • The dumbass hotass says:

    Mind blown, valuable lessons learned this past year. Thank you for the information, i am going to diligently go read up and learn asap.

    I was once told :
    It takes a village to raise an idiot. But it takes courage to realize when you yourself that is the idiot and admit to it.

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  • Senor Spamdump says:

    Social groups that involve participation &/or have a budget inevitably devolve into dysfunction as resentment builds between the workers & the freeloaders; different personality types and their disparate forms of expression inevitably come into conflict.
    This is a fantastic idea for long term theme camps that wish to establish a sustainable presence. Tasks necessary for a successful presence should be identified, planned, delegated & those with substandard group participation should be citet Transparency would allow all the other members to see that founder isn’t just sitting on his ass, bossing people around, but he put a lot work in during the off season to ensure the camp goes off well. There’s plenty of advance organization & administration that most take for granted and just assume happened by magic.
    The friends & hangarounds are fine but a 3 tiered membership initiation similar to MC gangs (Prospect, Rocker & Full Patch) would help separate the moochers from the producers.

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  • So how do you handle things like equipment ownership?

    I would like my camp to get there but right now I own too much of the gear. And much of the gear is expensive items like 55K gennie, distro, box truck, trailers, lighting, etc. Not to mention the storage and maintenance costs of the other gear – sooo many tarps and conduit… and kitchen and showers and and

    I’m tired after so many years… and would like to step down and let the youngins go but oof.

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