Since Burning Man Project kicked off the Save Black Rock City campaign, seeking grassroots community support to get us back to Black Rock City, it’s been deja vu all over again. As has been the case forEVER:
- Burning Man Project does something.
- Burning Man Project is accused of nefarious intent, gross incompetence or worse, based on incorrect assumptions about how Burning Man Project’s business is conducted.
- What could otherwise have been a productive community conversation devolves into debunking and fact-checking whack-a-mole.
I worked for Burning Man Project for 13 years before I left (more on that below), so I have direct personal experience of this dynamic. But I have a better idea: let’s clear some things up, get on the same page, and then have the conversation. Here’s the deal though: you have to read this post. (It’s not too long, and it’s funny. You can do it.) Sound good? Good.
I’ve got your Frequently Asked Questions right here:
Q: Who needs Burning Man Project to host a Burning Man event? You guys just put out porta-potties, right?
A: Have you ever thrown a little kid’s birthday party at your house? You know, for like 10 kids and some parents? Some decorations, activities, a clown, sheet cake, party favors, first aid kit, the works? Seems simple on the face of it, but it’s a ton of planning, stress, ordering, buying, and running around town, and it sucks. Now imagine throwing that same party for 80,000 (also largely unpredictable) people. For a week. Oh, and your house is the surface of the moon. And your house is actively trying to kill your guests. Right, then…
I know this sounds crazy, but it turns out running an 80,000 person event in the middle of the most remote and inhospitable place in the world is a fairly complicated operation, involving long-term advance planning, subject matter experts across a variety of disciplines, and the commitment of a lot of money early in the annual process to lock in things like vendors, rentals (porta potties being just one of many), and (9 different local, state and federal) permits. These things don’t exactly fall out of trees perfectly where they need to land. Black Rock City requires a full-time year-round staff to pull off this annual minor miracle AND a robust seasonal staff as we get closer to the event.
So sure, you can certainly throw a small event that smells something like Burning Man — and if you do, great! Invite me! — without a large year-round operation to support it, but if you want Black Rock City? Well, that requires a monumental year-round lift.
Q: Black Rock City is just a week out of the year. What could you possibly be doing year-round that’s so important?
A: See the part above, about highly-complex, long-term advance planning? Right, that. That’s what it takes to produce an event the size, scale and sheer magnitude of Burning Man… you just can’t spend three months half-assing it and hope it’s going to work. We have 80,000 people going out to the desert, and as an organizing entity we’re essentially responsible for their health and safety (Radical Self-reliance or not, we need to be able to Medevac your ass to Reno when you bust your head open doing something stupid). So yeah, throughout the year, we’re doing all of the things you don’t care to know about (believe me, it’s a lot of spreadsheets) to make the sausage, preparing for you to come to the desert, lose your mind and go berzerker for a week. You’re welcome.
Other than that, we’re responding to a steady stream of requests to support what’s organically happening in the culture, providing facilitation, communication, educational resources, and opportunities for participation and connection, keeping the culture flowing in the community while BRC is dormant. That, and we shifted gears to accommodate our virtual community through culture-bearing platforms like Kindling, podcasts, BMIR programming, and the multiverses. With so much going on around Burning Man culture, there’s a lot to do.
Q: Why don’t you just lay off all those extraneous people from your bloated, overpaid staff?
A: Oh, we did. And it sucked. Because none of ‘em were extraneous, and they are all family. Burning Man Project’s highest earners (leadership, some of the founders, and executive team) took pay cuts, everybody’s stretched thin (#NonProfitLYFE), stressed by having to absorb their former coworkers’ roles, and leveling up to learn new roles. (Like, the team that normally facilitates year-round in person events is now working on digital events… stuff like that.)
This isn’t an attempt to elicit your sympathy, by the way — everybody’s struggling everywhere, and we’re lucky to have jobs at all — these are just the facts you should know.
Oh, and let’s get clear on this point once and for all, please: our staff is not overpaid by any stretch. Believe it or not, Burning Man Project actually pays in the mid-range for salaries in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is ridiculously high. If you’re looking at those salaries from somewhere Not Bay Area (or NYC or LA), they’ll seem crazy high to you. But if you’re not living in the Bay Area, you’re likely not spending $14 on a sandwich, either (or $2,800 median rent on a 1BR apartment, for that matter). But we are. Welcome to life in the Bay Area! So yeah, our salaries are not anywhere close to out of line, considering we like to, y’know, eat and stuff.
The other thing that can skew your perception is that only salaries for Burning Man Project’s top earners are published in public disclosures. Only a handful of high-level executives earn those salaries, and they are 100% reasonable, given the roles they play and responsibilities they carry — we frankly wouldn’t be able to retain the talent we need without paying what we do.
Fun Fact: I left Burning Man Project in 2016 because after having my second kid, I couldn’t afford to work there anymore. So let’s not talk about Burning Man Project staff being overpaid, shall we?
Q: Well, why don’t you move out of the Bay Area then, geniuses?
A: That’s a hard one for a number of reasons, including the fact that the great majority of our long-term staff (and their invaluable institutional knowledge) lives in the Bay Area, as do the world’s highest concentration of Burners.
But we were lucky to get a deal on our headquarters’ office rent, which helped make it possible. In 2018, we opened a Reno office where 14 staff members now work, because it’s closer to the playa, with a large and dynamic Burner community, and the office space is cheaper. And we’ve now expedited the 3-5 year plan we were working on before COVID hit to support a more distributed work model, which helps us hire (and for people to move) outside the Bay Area.
We’re always looking for creative opportunities to save money — as Marian Goodell said, “everything is on the table.”
Q: Why aren’t you transparent about your finances? What are you hiding? YOU’RE HIDING SOMETHING AREN’T YOU!?!
A: Not sure why’d you think that, because as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, we’re legally required to be transparent about our finances, or we lose our nonprofit status. (We’re so transparent, philanthropy.com called Burning Man Project one of the most transparent nonprofits going, so there.) Thing is, a lot of people don’t ever read that stuff, because it’s pretty damn boring (unless you’re really into weird event production and global cultural stewardship). Instead, they jump to conclusions based on their experiences with mainstream corporations who are looking to serve you only inasmuch as they can fleece you, and they paint us with that same brush. Which I get, but c’mon… do the research.
So if you really want to know about Burning Man’s financial picture, read our Annual Reports and Form 990’s that we send to the government and publish every year, which lay it all out for you to see. You can also see Burning Man Project’s expenses and where your ticket money goes.
NOTE: The latest financial information available is from 2018. The 2019 990 will be available toward the end of 2020 (it just takes that long for it all to play out).
So yeah, it’s all out there… all we ask is that if you’re going to throw around accusations about how we do business (which, have at it), at least learn how we actually do business first? It’ll make for a much less fraught — and likely much shorter — conversation.
Q: Wait, you idiots didn’t have a financial reserve in case of a rainy day?
A: Oh, we certainly did… $10M worth. And guess what? The last few months were one big fat rainy day. So our reserve was spent to carry us through the summer after we refunded people’s ticket money (huge appreciation to those who donated theirs!), depriving us of our normal annual revenue stream. And let’s all agree this is not a normal year. For anybody.
Also, we think it should actually give you some reassurance that Burning Man Project isn’t sitting on an exorbitant cash pile. That whole “no corporate sponsors” thing? No “pay-to-play?” Yeah, that’s real. It would be way more alarming if Burning Man Project somehow managed to amass bags of cash to simply ride out years of not holding the event. The reality is that ticket sales to Black Rock City are what keep the lights on. No BRC = No Lights On (without your help).
Q: Fine. Sell Fly Ranch. Problem solved, right?
A: Sadly no. First off, selling Fly would literally take years, we’d take a huge loss on it, and the likely sale price would net us only a fraction of what we need to get through this. More importantly, we see Fly (as Larry did) as a core feature of Burning Man’s future, where we own a piece of land with a year-round creative incubator and arts center, where people can co-create and envision a better, more sustainable future together, year-round. Our back may be up against the wall, but we’re not ready to sacrifice that to survive.
Q: Why can’t Burning Man just continue on without Black Rock City? Who needs it?
A: There’s an argument for that, sure. Burning Man is a culture and a community… a global network and an idea. And while the diaspora is definitely making creative waves of their own with events and activities, that energy and inspiration originated from — and continues to emanate from — the crucible that is Black Rock City. Burning Man culture would certainly continue on without BRC, no doubt, but its potential would be seriously hamstrung without Black Rock City pumping out freshly-dusty, wide-eyed and inspired new Burners into the world. And we happen to think the world needs what comes out of Black Rock City now more than ever. Maybe you think differently, which is fine… just go out there and do something with what you learned at BRC, and make it awesome.
Q: With everything that’s going on in the world, how can you say with a straight face that Black Rock City is a priority right now?
A: When your daily news feed may as well be headlined “What Fresh Hell Today?”, it’s easy to succumb to nihilism and wonder why we’re doing anything at all, really. We’ve all double-checked our priorities this year, for sure. But I think there’s a stronger argument to be made for the connection, creative inspiration, collective action, participation, and innovation that happens in Black Rock City. I mean hell, we practically invented an entirely new sociocultural dynamic with Black Rock City. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the lessons we (all of us, including new Burners) take from BRC are exactly the lessons we need to be taking out into the default world at this moment. Perhaps you think your money is better spent elsewhere? Definitely spend it elsewhere, that’s entirely up to you.
Q: Where do you get the gall to ask us for money, when you’re a multimillion dollar corporation and we can’t pay rent or put food on the table?
A: Absolutely get that. This pandemic has been like a wind-blown wildfire, wiping some folks out clean while sparing others, some of whom are thriving. Our community is made up of people across that spectrum, and in the spirit of Civic Responsibility and Communal Effort, this is one of those times we hope to see those blessed with resources support the greater whole. So no, we wouldn’t expect you to prioritize BRC over food on the table. And while it can certainly come off as tone-deaf to even be asking, we have to throw the net wide to find the folks lucky enough to be able to subsidize those who are struggling.
Also (and this is one of the most common misperceptions people have about Burning Man Project), we’re only technically a multi-million dollar company. While we normally bring in (roughly) $43M in ticket revenues every year, we’re a nonprofit, and the great majority of that money goes right back into funding the event (or that rainy day fund we were talking about). Nobody’s sitting on a big pile of cash and rolling around in diamond-encrusted limousines, guys. Here are the numbers, if you don’t believe me.
Q: Why don’t you just get all the plug-and-play billionaires to pony up and be done with it?
A: We certainly could, and we’re having those conversations. At the same time, Burning Man was built by (wait for it…) participants like YOU. It’s always been YOUR event, which YOU co-created with your best and craziest friends. It’s not Disneyland, ready for you when you get there… you build it, and that’s one of the main reasons it’s as awesome as it is, and why it’s so awesome for YOU. We built it together from the beginning, we build it together today, and we should always build it together, even through times of crisis.
So sure, somebody with deep pockets could probably dig the change out of their couch cushions and save our skin, and it would be a hell of a lot easier than running a crowdfunding campaign, believe me, but that would be a shameful betrayal of one of our core principles: Participation. So we’re reaching out grassroots style, and rallying the community to, once again, rebuild Black Rock City, as we hope — and expect — to for years to come.