June 13th, 2013  |  Filed under Participate!

The slightly-inside track: Everything you need to know about volunteering at Burning Man

June 13th, 2013  |  Filed under Participate!
Media Mecca, back in the day (photo by Playarazzi)

Media Mecca, back in the day (photo by Playarazzi)

For the last six years, it has been my privilege to meet and work with the most extraordinary people as part of Burning Man’s media team. No more.  As of this month, I have resigned my commission as Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca in order to spend more time with my family. (Okay, fine:  that’s a lie.  To even claim I’ll be spending more time with my family is technically in violation of a court order.) This will not affect your life at all. But it has reminded me that I’ve always meant to write a post explaining Burning Man’s often opaque volunteer system to people who are thinking about trying it on for themselves.  It was obvious to me, as I waded through my first few hundred volunteer applications, that a hell of a lot of people have no idea how the system works. This is that post. Volunteering for Burning Man is a beautiful oddity:  the equivalent of going to the world’s biggest party and immediately walking into the kitchen or the coat check room and asking “can I help?”  In fact, that’s literally what it is. Why would you do that?  I mean, you paid to come here.   We’re not giving you a room.  Very, very, few volunteers get anything more than appreciation and beer, let alone tickets.  The most you’re likely to get out of it, materially speaking, is a t-shirt and a hot meal.  Although I did once get a lapel pin. And if it’s not a route to fortune, it’s definitely not a route to fame:  the artists and singers and photographers and poets who try to “volunteer for Burning Man” in the hope that we’ll put them on a stage or their work on a pedestal to entertain thousands are filling out the wrong forms to an almost tragic degree. People who want to do that on the playa have to find or create their own opportunities.  Volunteering with Burning Man is much more “keeping things running” than “inspiring the eternal muses with the flame of genius.”  It’s subtle, but there’s a difference. So why do it at all?  Doesn’t going to the world’s largest party and offering to spend your time helping the kitchen make you kind of … a loser? Sure it does:  to everybody but the people in the kitchen.  Man are they glad for the help … and they’re kind of awesome.  In fact, they might very well be the people you want to hang out with most.  But only you know that. Look:  some people volunteer for Burning Man because they think it’s a good way to experience the event – and they’re absolutely right. Some people volunteer for Burning Man to make friends.   That’s why I started, and it worked brilliantly until they traded me to the Aspen Music Festival for a housing director and two violinists. And some people … hey … they’re happiest walking into the back end of a party and asking “you need any help?”  It’s what makes them tick.  Those people are gold.  There wouldn’t be a Burning Man without those people.  After six years of working with volunteers, I am increasingly convinced that the purest expression of the Burning Man spirit isn’t an artistic statement or dance party, but the words “Can I help?” said to a complete stranger doing something odd. But understand:  If the act of volunteering, meeting people, and doing good, isn’t reward enough, you probably won’t be rewarded enough volunteering for Burning Man. And that’s okay.  Screw the Org.  (That’s a good rule of thumb, actually:  “when in doubt, screw the Org.”)  There’s plenty for everyone to do at Burning Man.  This is no better than anything else you do on playa:  it’s just one option. But it’s an important one:  Burning Man’s volunteer infrastructure is enormous, and essential.  There’s an awful lot at stake in getting the people who want to help in the kitchen to the kitchen, and the people who really, really, want to help in the coat room to the coat room … and not trapping people behind the bar who really want to dance, even if they insist that they’re fine, it’s cool, mixing drinks is kind of like dancing when you think about it. Mostly, I think we do that.  But we don’t have it down to a science and we can’t get it down to a science – the very nature of the organization balks at it, which is where confusion often settles in. If there’s one thing I think prospective volunteers don’t understand about Burning Man’s inner structure and how it’s run, it’s this:  Burning Man doesn’t really believe in processes, it believes in people.  It believes in people and their capacity to reinvent the organization they work for. This isn’t to say that Burning Man doesn’t have processes – of course it does – but much in the way Black Rock City is reinvented every year, Burning Man’s human side is constantly reinventing how things work to fit the people they have.  When you volunteer for Burning Man, the worst thing you can do – for yourself and the organization – is try to “fill a slot.”  There are, absolutely, plenty of slots to be filled.  But the more you try to be a cog in the machine the more the gears are going to slip around you.  Because it isn’t a machine at all: you’re trying to be a cog in a cocktail hour.  It doesn’t really work. You can argue with me, if you like, about whether a system based on people is worse than one based on processes.  It’s a fair argument to have, and it gets to the heart of many of the fiercest critiques of Burning Man and its board:  that it’s too much about Larry Harvey, that Burning Man caters too much to insiders, that it’s not open to democratic change (democracy, ironically, being every bit as depersonalizing as it is liberating:  it doesn’t matter who you are, your vote is identical and interchangeable with anyone else’s.  Your “personhood” only counts to the exact extent it is not unique). By all means, let’s have those arguments.  But not here.  This is more of a practical guide to the system as it is, and I invite you to join me in thinking (or at least considering) that it is refreshing, in the world we live in, to belong to an organization that does not view the people in it as something besides unique individuals.  What other big organization does that?  What other big organization would even try?  My phone company sure doesn’t give a damn. On a practical level, what does this mean for you if you want to volunteer?  Well, let me answer that with a question:  Do you know what the most annoying Burning Man volunteer application to receive is? It’s not the one from a goddess-hula-hooper-who-just-read-“The Secret”-and-intends-to-manifest-a-ton-of-E. It’s not the one from a Silicon-Valley-programmer-who-thinks-he’s-an-expert-on-everything-because-he-once-interned-at-Google. It’s not the one from a Wisconsin-teenager-who-wants-to-come-to-Burning-Man-in-order-to-get-back-at-her-parents. No … though all of those are pretty terrible.  But by far the most frustrating application is the one from the person who tells us nothing but their name and address and then checks every team as one they’d like to work for. What are we supposed to do with that?  Seriously – how the hell can we possibly determine, based on no information except your willingness to go wherever we put you, what a good fit is? Yes, I know:  you think it means “I just want to help!  Put me wherever you can best use me!”  But the way it’s interpreted by the people it’s reaching is:  “I don’t know either.” And maybe you don’t.  Completely understandable.  But the end result is more confusion, not less. The key to making your way through the volunteer system is to talk to us.  A system based on who people are works best for you when you tell us who you are. And I mean “talk.” Not just click boxes.  A list of checkmarks of your “skills” is a lot less informative than a couple of paragraphs about yourself. If you really want to wow us:  give those couple of paragraphs a little thought.  The better we know you when you apply to volunteer – the more we think of you as a person – the better a chance you have to find your people. Indeed, “finding your people” is probably a better way to think about volunteering for Burning Man than “getting a job.”   Every team at Burning Man has its own distinct culture, and is constantly looking for volunteers who will enhance and expand it.  Provided that a certain level of competence is met, “job” considerations make way for “people” considerations every time. The various teams absolutely have specific jobs they’re looking to fill – in the case of Media Mecca, I was most often looking for people who can be something we call “wranglers”:  the people who herd the Media around Media Mecca, who make sure they get the paperwork they need to sign and their cameras tagged and know what they need to know.   (It’s a job that requires the skills of a good barista more than a good photographer, reporter, or PR professional.)  Each team has equally specific needs.  Competence in these roles absolutely counts. But job descriptions that are solid in principle are fluid in practice.  If a wrangler had a habit of cleaning up the area with all the paperwork and pens (and was good at it) they were likely to find themselves put in charge of keeping that area organized.  Wranglers with a knack for keeping other wranglers entertained in ways that didn’t distract from their work would end up supporting volunteer appreciation functions.  If that meant creating a new position, what the hell?  Provided they were supporting the team rather than showboating (“Hey, look at me!” gets you little more than rolled eyes), the aptitudes a volunteer brought to the team were far more important than the roles we had designated to be filled. For someone who is a good fit, a job description personalizes rapidly.  Responsibilities flow to people who make the rest of the team’s lives better by taking them on.  New ideas are integrated quickly, and new structures and roles are most often based on the talents discovered as new people come on board.  The system revolves around the people in it. If you’re a good fit. That, of course, is the problem with a system that values people over processes:  it’s not impartial, and never can be.  “Impartiality” is, by definition, “impersonal,” and Burning Man doesn’t care for it very much.  It doesn’t want things to work exactly the same way for everyone, because it doesn’t like pretending that any two people are exactly alike. If this seems unfair … well, it is.  Burning Man aspires to be radically inclusive, and transformative, and open to everyone:  but it is not fair, and to my knowledge has never tried to be. But the lack of fairness inherent in a personhood-based system is mitigated to no small extent by the principle of radical inclusion:  the idea is that we’re not supposed to say “no.”  We will, ideally, give everyone who asks a try. That ideal is taken very seriously. But it also butts up against a reality, especially for small teams like Media Mecca or the ARTery, that there are far more people who want to be on the team than we could possibly give useful work to – and there is a strong ethic at Burning Man that giving people busy-work is the worst thing you can do … an insult and a waste of everyone’s time. Large teams really can give (almost) anyone a try:  Center Camp Café has literally tens-of-thousands of work hours to fill.  Last year at Media Mecca, on the other hand, I was only able to add 3 new volunteers out of hundreds of applicants.  SO MANY COOL PEOPLE wanted to come in, and I just didn’t have the space.  It was a nightmare.  (We’ve since worked to expand capacity but … Hey! … not my problem anymore.) The result is that while trying to be as inclusive as possible, I was inevitably going to grab volunteers who most seemed to resonate in some way with the Media Team’s culture – and every Burning Man team has both the inclination and the latitude to do the same, even if they also have the inclination and the capacity to be far more inclusive.  Given a large supply of people, many of whom (let’s be honest) were completely qualified to do the job, the way I evaluated who to reach out to was on the basis of how they conveyed their personhood. Once basic competence is accounted for, Radical Self-Expression counts for a lot.  It turns out that Burning Man is all riddle, no sphinx:  there’s actually no lock on the door if you say “Hello” properly. (As a quick cautionary note:  “Say Hello” doesn’t mean “offer us drugs” or “show us your tits” or “tell us who your famous friends are.”   Jesus Christ does it not mean that.  Trust me on this:  however rich you are, however beautiful you are, however famous your friends are, we’ve already had people richer, cuter, and more famous than you apply this month, and we didn’t let them in either.  People like that are incredibly disruptive to teams.  We wish them well at Burning Man, but, that doesn’t mean we need to work with them.) But I’ve been talking about this as a one-way street:  Burning Man teams evaluating potential volunteers.  In fact potential volunteers have agency, and should use it. When you fill out the volunteer survey, don’t just fill it out:  call to your people.  If you’re looking for volunteer opportunities on playa, find the people who are having the kind of fun you want to have and ask “Can I help?”  If that takes you from one team to another, if that takes you from volunteering for the Org to supporting an artist or a theme camp, so what?  If you can’t follow your passion at Burning Man, when are you going to?  The more of yourself you put into your search for a volunteer gig, the better the chance you’ll be found by the people you want to be with.  Again:  being radically self-expressive, following your bliss, is the best way to call out to the people you want to work with.  Even if you’re not sure who they are. Because let me tell you:  for a VC, finding a good potential volunteer isn’t like finding the perfect member of a country club who will look good in the summer brochure and say all the right things at Muffy’s dinner party.  It’s not a calculated, weigh-the-pros-and-cons, process.  It’s what happens when you go in thinking you know what you’re looking for, and then suddenly, out of the blue, this person who you never imagined existed, who you never in your wildest dreams though you would come across, suddenly leaps out at you from something electric they wrote on a routine survey form.  You jump in your seat;  you clap your hands;  you think “YES!  This person actually exists!   And they might want to HELP ME!  That’s AMAZING!” My God, do you know how marvelous you people are?  Holy crap – the things you do. That’s what the experience of putting together a team is like:  it’s an incredible opportunity to meet people and connect with them and learn from them and have new experiences. And if you’re not having the same experience with us … my God, this is Burning Man, you’ve got to have a better option.  Find it. I’m not saying walk out in the middle of a shift or don’t show up when you’ve made a promise to help – that’s bullshit, and if you’ve said you’ll do something, we’re counting on you.  But if you’re a good volunteer, you’re a precious resource – and we’ll go through hell and high water to find you something at Burning Man that you can do. And you can start that process yourself on your volunteer survey:  be yourself.  Tell us who you are, what you want.  Swing for the fences.  Call your tribe!  They’ll respond. They might not be who you think they are, but they’ll respond. I mean, that’s what Burning Man is, isn’t it?  You go out there, to the desert, way outside your comfort zone … and you bring something of yourself.  It may be a secret … it may be a long-deferred wish … it may frighten you … it may not make any sense at all … but you bring it, and you express it, and you offer it up to the community.  You give it, as best you can, and something happens. Something happens.  And through it, you find what you came for. Isn’t that what it’s like? Volunteering, at its best, is like that. If that’s not what it’s like for you, then we’re doing it wrong, and you should do something about it. If that is what it’s like for you … welcome home. I just won’t be one of the people welcoming you in.  I think you’ll be fine, though. Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man hangs around Burning Man trying to find an open bar and start fights.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com


15 Responses to “The slightly-inside track: Everything you need to know about volunteering at Burning Man”

  1. Dactylion Says:

    Man, I hope that you will continue writing the odd Burning Blog! I have always enjoyed your posts. Be well and good luck in all things.

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  2. joe Says:

    Thanks. That was very helpful. And… as long as you’re hanging around burning man could you please make sure that something cacaphonous will happen or will be about to happen or could possibly happen as long the mood is correct and it guarantees way too much fun for one person to handle? And… if this possibility quite organically and extemporaneously almost definitely occurs… can I help?

    Report comment

  3. Paige Saez Says:

    Excellent. Thank you. Very straightforward and refreshing. I feel armed with context and consideration!

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  4. Brian McGloin Says:

    Caveat, you nailed it.

    Speaking of nail, I was hoping you would be there this time (assuming I can get a ticket). Last year as I was helping Shaggy tear down the Mecca, I tossed a bent nail aiming for your open container of the ice-cooled beverage. The first missed, but the second clanked off the vessel’s rim.

    I was hoping to make another attempt at buggering your refreshment this year, in addition to challenging Nurse to another ultra dangerous bike race, maybe volunteering also.

    I met some awesome people in the midst of the dusty confusion and never thought I was missing out on “Burning Man.” In fact, I wish I could do more, and if I were in striking distance of San Fransisco (or actually in the city) I would try to weasel my way further into the Org.

    (I just realized this comment works for this post and the one about being an asshole on the playa).

    I had a good time volunteering at Media Mecca the past two years, although by the time I figure out what’s going on, it’s time to leave.

    I wish you well in your endeavors, and if anyone asks, I never saw you.

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  5. Brian McGloin Says:

    Maybe you now have more time to properly wage a gentleman’s war with Monticello.

    I’ll join your army.

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  6. Adriana Says:

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  7. Adm. Fiesta Says:

    Well put, Adriana.

    You too, Caveat.

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  10. Juliann Says:

    Hello!

    Last year I volunteered at the medical clinic. I am willing to do this work again; however, I am a psychologist and would better serve at the mental health clinic. Does Burning Man have one? If so, how do I contact the folks there to inquire about volunteering?

    Thank you and much love,
    jw
    )*(

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  11. Dustin Says:

    Caveat, if there was a Pulitzer for blogs this one would win it! Looking forward to volunteering again at Media Mecca, in 54 days in fact!

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  12. Mojori Says:

    Why are there no paragraph breaks in this article? By leaving them out you’ve made it much harder to read. You don’t want people skipping it for this reason eh?

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  13. Joyous Says:

    THANK YOU! AMEN! Love your blog post, and I just “put myself out there” and really tried to be as personal as I could the other day when filling out a volunteer app. Giving is living & we’ll be Home soon!

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