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.