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As one of the largest arts nonprofits in the world, Burning Man is a cultural organization centered in civic engagement and supporting the arts. They’re best known for their annual city-building project in Nevada, Black Rock City, a festival-like, community-building experience. Each year, Black Rock City is created and self-run by 70,000 “burners” (a common term of endearment for Burning Man participants) who each create their own themed camps that offer various services and activities to other participants. Camps range in theme and purpose, and campers create their own grounds and living arrangements, even designing and producing art installations and vehicles for each other’s enjoyment in the pop-up desert city. Many artists are paid by Burning Man to create and build installations for the week-long event, as well (you’ve probably seen an iconic image or two of some effigy burning in the middle of the desert on the Internet—that’s Burning Man).
But beyond the physical camps, installations and sprawling community that visibly characterize the experience, one of the most fascinating things about Black Rock City is its social structure. It has no formal, forward-facing leadership and camps typically run themselves, which leaves many of us (including myself) asking: how? How does the whole thing work?
Today, I sat in on a presentation by Victoria Mitchell, one of Burning Man’s associate directors, at The Culturati Summit, an annual convening for culture-minded CEOs in Austin, Texas. In her presentation, Mitchell detailed some of the key factors in sustaining a positive company culture throughout Burning Man and how that extends to its projects and their participants. She credited three key factors: a sustained, defined culture, engaged ambassadors and ultimately belief in it all.
1.) Burning Man’s culture is guided by ten key principles, each of which contribute to the city’s creation, maintenance and social rules.
According to Mitchell, the organization’s and Black Rock City’s ten principles are radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation and immediacy. In summary, participants are responsible for themselves, expected to give to one another and expected to clean up. Each of these principles guides the creation of camps and the relationship between the city’s participants, its staff and overall infrastructure. Mitchell admitted, though, that these principles can be widely interpreted and have varying values of importance for those who participate in Burning Man. So, the city has the same problems as any other city, including issues with sexual assault and consent, death, theft and even population issues as new attendees flock to the experience. Mitchell said the organization’s staff is tasked with developing infrastructure to combat these issues each year.
2.) The organization’s culture of autonomy has created a network of highly engaged volunteers around Burning Man, each dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the Burning Man experience—free of charge.
In 2017, it’s estimated that Burning Man generated $42 million in revenue from Black Rock City, while spending approximately $41 million, which at scale is pretty slim margins. So, how can the organization afford to keep the lights on and produce the festival year after year? Mitchell says that Burning Man, as an organization, is supported by a 100-person staff and Black Rock City is sustained by a seasonal army of about 8,000 volunteers. This indoctrinated team of ambassadors not only works to keep the city running, but also helps maintain and perpetuate the organization’s desired culture. Year-round, these highly engaged burners attract more participants to the experience and some have even begun their own versions of Black Rock City at home.
3.) Black Rock City is an experience conjured from the participants’ collective belief in its existence.
Without burners and participants, Black Rock City would never become a city at all. In her presentation, Mitchell said Burning Man and Black Rock City demonstrated that “if we build it, they will come, but if they build it, they will never leave.” Ultimately, Burning Man and its projects survive because they’re communally led, driven by autonomy and demonstrate radical forms of self-governance.
So, as a case study, Burning Man’s success begs the question: How can we use community empowerment and autonomy within organizations, businesses and communities to create similar forms of engagement? Is Burning Man a model for the lifestyle design? Or is it simply a one-week social phenomenon in the middle of the desert?
January 28, 2019 at 11:14PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs