Charity Versus Tax-Free

image: Bearman/Flickr (Creative Commons)

image: Bearman/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the comments to our BMOrg Hath Spoken article, Burner Cooter raised an interesting point.

This is a slight tangent but the deal with the non profit status is really starting to irritate me as it seems to get inserted every time the ethics of the Borg comes into question. Being a nonprofit organization in no way makes any implications on the honesty or ethics of the company. All it means is the profits get reinvested in the company since there are no share holders. 99% of the time this mean profits get spent on the salaries and benefits of top executives. Some of the most unapologetically corrupt companies in the world are non profits. Think FIFA or the NFL. But every time the topic of ethics comes up it is subtly pointed out that the Borg is a non profit. It doesn’t mean anything.

Sorry to irritate you, Cooter. While your general point is technically correct, and “non-profit” can simply mean “tax dodge” rather than “charity”, for the specifics of the Burning Man Project we need to look at 2 things:

1. The ByLaws of the Burning Man Project

2. The Statements of the Founders about the transition to a non-profit.

The NFL, chaired by Roger Goodell (Marian’s cousin?) is an unincorporated 501(c)6 tax-exempt trade association, based in Washington, D.C. Its tax-free status is quite controversial. FIFA is incorporated in Switzerland. The Burning Man Project is a 501(c)3 California Public Benefit corporation. According to the IRS:

Organizations described in section 501(c)(3) are commonly referred to as charitable organizations… 

The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization’s net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

1. From the ByLaws of the Burning Man Project

Article 1: “The principled means that serve our mission shall always be inherent in our goals and projects”

bylaws article 1



Article 5: “charitable purposes” gets mentioned twice.

bylaws article 5


6:00 & Ring Road “The Directors may not engage in or approve any activity that is inconsistent with the Ten Principles”

bylaws article 6


6:00 to 9:00 & Ring Road: Duty of the Directors

“Directors shall conduct themselves ethically”


bylaws article 6 09

8:30 & Decommodification : Philosophy Committee

“must operate in order to remain true to the Ten Principles…shall become binding on the operations of Burning Man Project”.

bylaws 830d 03


Their latest blog post tries to claim that the “Burning Man event” is different from the “Burning Man Project”, but if the “Burning Man Project” did wholly acquire “Black Rock City LLC” as they claimed at the start of 2014, this cannot be true and the event must be part of “the operations of Burning Man Project”.

Black Rock City, LLC, which operates the annual event in Nevada called “Burning Man”, became a fully owned subsidiary of the Burning Man Project as of January 1, 2014:

On December 27, 2013, the Burning Man Project Board of Directors voted to make Black Rock City LLC a subsidiary and is now the sole shareholder of the LLC, which will continue to manage the event in the desert. The transition became official January 1, 2014.

Of course, they may have pulled “the old bait and switch”, and told us that they had sold “the” LLC to BMP, but actually sold Black Rock City, LLC to someone else. There are a lot of LLCs floating around within this this corporate conglomerate, as well as many registered non-profits. But I’m more inclined to take their statement at face value, which means the Burning Man event is a solely owned subsidiary of the Burning Man Project.

image: Dru/Flickr (Creative Commons)

image: Dru/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Other interesting clauses in the Bylaws refer to “non-voting observers” (Article 3, 6:30 & Inclusion), the right of the Founders to license the trademarks back to the group (Article 5, 1:00 & Center Camp), “a proposed transaction” (Article 5, 4:00 and Center camp), all kinds of allowable Real Estate transactions (Article 4, 10:00 & Center Camp) , Directors making money from the business via consulting, sale of goods and rent “at or below fair market value” (Article 5, 6:00 & Center Camp).

Despite Larry Harvey’s claims that the “10 Principles are just an ethos, not the 10 Commandments”, a Director can be removed “for cause” for failing to cure a breach of any one of the 10 Principles (article 6, page 12).

You read the Bylaws here.

2. Statements of the Founders

We’ve been trying to give them the benefit of the doubt that this is more than just a tax dodge, because that’s how they sold it to us since the idea was introduced in 2011, and that’s how it was promoted in the movie produced by former Burning Man Director Chris Weitz, “Spark: A Burning Man Story”.


The Burning Man Project’s Mission and Vision certainly sound very altruistic:


The mission of the Burning Man Project is to facilitate and extend the culture that has issued from the Burning Man event into a larger world. This culture forms an integrated pattern of values, experience, and behavior: a coherent and widely applicable way of life. The survival and elaboration of this culture depend upon a cultivated capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.


The Burning Man Project will bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and cultural engagement.

When they announced that their transition had been “fully completed”, they said:

The Burning Man Project is a public benefit organization, and our intention is to build the network of connectivity through relationships with individuals, organizations and government entities. We have great ambitions for what we sometimes refer to at HQ as a “100 year plan.” We’re a little over a quarter century into that plan… and our best days are still ahead.

We are restructuring some of our operations to strengthen our capacity to deliver on our ever-growing potential as a force for creativity and good in the world

Marian Goodell, Huffington Post March 4 2014:

“In our more exciting moments, any one of us who has been to Burning Man thinks it can change the world,” she added. “It brings people hope, and it makes people less afraid of others. It transcends religion and politics. It’s worth it to expose others to what we’ve learned from this cultural experience.”

Larry Harvey, New York Times August 28, 2011:

“We’re going to treat Burning Man like what it always should have been: not as a commodity, but as a gift

Larry Harvey, Burning Blog:

Our mission has always been to serve the community, and a non-profit public benefit corporation is the most socially responsible option to ensure and protect the future of Burning Man

Scribe in SFBG, discussing “Spark: A Burning Man story”

More cynical burner veterans may have a few eye-rolling moments with this film and the portrayals of its selfless leadership. While the discussions of the ticket fiasco raised challenging issues within the LLC, its critics came off as angry and unreasonable, as if the new ticket lottery had nothing to do with the temporary, artificial ticket scarcity (which was alleviated by summer’s end and didn’t occur this year under a new and improved distribution system).

And when the film ends by claiming “the organization is transitioning into a nonprofit to ‘gift’ the event back to the community,” it seems to drift from overly sympathetic into downright deceptive, leaving viewers with the impression that the six board members are selflessly relinquishing the tight control they exercise over the event and the culture it has spawned.

Yet our interview with the LLC leadership shows that just isn’t true. If anything, the public portrayals that founder Larry Harvey made two years ago about how this transition would go have been quietly modified to leave these six people in control of Burning Man for the foreseeable future.

Larry Harvey, the New Yorker:

Burning Man is guided by what initiates call the Ten Principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. These ideas, Harvey suggested, might one day form the basis of a new world order

Here’s the official launch of the Burning Man Project on August 5, 2011. I was in the crowd that day, before I started this blog. I believed them to be genuine in what they said: “we want to help change lives”. Larry starts at about 10:00.


Dear Burning Man…

A guest post from our reader Sandstorm. The email he’s responding to is shared at the end of this post.

Like many members of the Burning Man community I’ve spent the past 2+ months feeling justifiably concerned about the topic of Commodification Camps (aka Turnkey Camps aka Plug And Play Camps) and their place in and impact upon Burning Man and the Burner community. Like many other Burners I’ve voiced my concerns about this subject on websites such as Facebook (FB) and Burning Man’s ePlaya bulletin board, as well as in the comments sections of some of the relevant recent entries on the official Burning Man Blog. I’ve also used my artistic skills to address what I call the Commodification Camp Controversy (CCC). I’ve recently created a handful of light-hearted satirical images that speak to this subject and I’ve posted them in the unofficial Burning Man group on FB. I’ve included one of those images here.


2 days ago I and countless other Burners received a fundraising email from the Burning Man Project (BMP). I was not pleased when I read that email and that’s because until now Burning Man’s official response to the CCC has been at best lacking and at worst inept. After reading that email I carefully drafted and then sent a reply email to the BMP. I then posted the contents of that email in the unofficial Burning Man group on FB and also on ePlaya. I did so because I wanted to share with other Burners how I was trying to constructively address the CCC. I was honestly surprised by the amount of positive response that I received to those posts.

At some point on Thursday evening the owner of reached out to me on FB via PM and asked me if I’d be willing to post on his site my above mentioned email to the BMP and some of the CCC related images that I’ve recently posted on FB. I asked him to let me think about the matter before I said yes or no to him and I did so for a variety of reasons.

Although I’m a 6 time burner I believe and know that I’m a nobody in the Burner community. I’m sure as hell not a spokesperson for this community. I’m also neither an attention seeker nor am I someone who seeks to or enjoys to stir up discord about sensitive topics. Given those facts and given the amount of debate surrounding both the CCC and I was initially reluctant to share on this site the reply email that I recently sent to the BMP. That said, I know that I wrote that email with integrity and honesty and thus I’m comfortable with sharing it here.

My reply email to the BMP seems to have resonated with many of the people who’ve read it. By posting that email on this site there’s a chance that my email will reach a wider audience and perhaps inspire other burners to find their own ways of peacefully and creatively confronting the CCC. I refuse to remain silent about that topic and that’s because I love Burning Man so much. The event and the community have changed my life in so many positive ways and even if this post ends up having no impact on Larry Harvey & Co. I at least know that at a time of crisis in the Burner community I spoke up for the values that are meant to be embodied by Burning Man.

It’s important for me to state here that I do not have a broad spectrum dislike for BMORG. I can only imagine how many wonderful people work in that organization. In this situation my dislike is directed solely at a specific group of people within the Burning Man power structure. I am displeased with those who run or help to run the event in ways that clearly run counter to the stated ethos of the event and the actual ethos of the people who physically and/or creatively build and run Black Rock City.

I want to send out my sincere thanks and respect to the countless people who make Burning Man a reality through their labor, passion, time, money and principles. The truth is that YOU are Burning Man, YOU are Black Rock City.

I want to thank the owner of for the opportunity to write this post. I also need to thank the Burners who took the time to read and respond to this post before I published it on this site. Dusty hugs,


From the unofficial Facebook Burning Man group:

“I thought that I’d share this with the group. (Note: If you’re a member of the tl;dr crew then just move along because these are not the droids you are looking for.)

So, yesterday I received an email from the Burning Man Project asking for a monetary donation. After I got some feedback from some fellow burners I sent the below email to the Burning Man Project.


I hope that this finds you well. I’ve taken some time to thoughtfully respond to your fundraising email regarding my potentially donating to the Burning Man Project. As a point of reference, I’ve known about Burning Man since late 1996 and it’s been a huge part of my life over the past 7 plus years. I’ve been burning since ’07 and I’ve been to Black Rock City 6 times in total. Since I’ve started burning the only 2 burns that I’ve missed were in ’09 and ’14, the former by choice and the latter due to my being unable to make the trip.

During each of my burns I’ve volunteered my time to groups such as The Lamplighters, Arctica, Center Camp Cafe, The Temple Guardians and a variety of theme camps and art projects. During that time I’ve made numerous monetary donations to groups such as Black Rock Arts Foundations and Black Rock Solar as well as to individual art projects and the 2013 Temple build. During my time as a burner I’ve repeatedly sold to other people Burning Man tickets that I did not need or could not use and when I did so I sold those tickets at below face value. On 4 occasions I’ve gifted Burning Man tickets to other people. In 2013 I helped half a dozen people I didn’t know acquire the Burning Man tickets they needed and I did so free of charge. I did that because Burning Man meant so much to me and I wanted to use my time and contacts to help other people make it HOME to Black Rock City.

At this point in time I have no desire to contribute a single cent to BMORG or any of it’s affiliated agencies. That is due to the fact the since the end of this year’s burn BMORG has hid from the Burner community as many of it’s members have eloquently and repeatedly voiced their concerns about the commodification of Burning Man via BMORG’s enabling of commodification camps such as Caravansicle, which was apparently run and funded in part by Jim Tananbaum, who currently serves on the Burning Man Board of Directors (BOD). There is ample and credible evidence on the Internet that indicates that various members of BMORG, the Burning Man founders and the Burning Man BOD have been engaged in behavior that runs contrary to Burning Man’s 10 Principles and to BMORG’s mission statement. Huge swaths of the Burner community are deeply concerned by the fact that there seem to be forces within the Burning Man power structure that are willing to commodify the event in the name of personal and organizational profit. In light of this controversy BMORG has maintained a level of radio silence that makes many Burners believe that BMORG is simply buying time to get its story straight about the Commodification Camp Controversy, buying time to let BMORG’s lawyers talk with the lawyers for various Commodification Camps and Burning Man BOD members. From this side of this situation BMORG seems both corrupt and inept beyond all belief. This situation makes the 2012 Ticket Lottery Fiasco seem like a small clerical error on the part of BMORG.

Before the Commodifcation Camp Controversy rose up I was identifying next year as one which I’d spend my summer working on the Temple project. I was planning on realizing a personal on-playa dream of mine, which is a mobile, deep playa pop-up bar. I was also planning on volunteering with the Resto team. While all those ideas are still meaningful to me Burning Man itself is no longer as meaningful to me as it was just 2 1/2 months ago when I watched large chunks of the burn via the official live video feed of the event. My lessened passion for the event is mostly due to my sense that elements within BMORG itself are willing to corrupt the event in the pursuit of profit and power and that BMORG is willing to ignore the concerns of the very community that builds Black Rock City and provides its creative content.

I took the time to write this email because I want you to know that the actions and inactions of various people within BMORG, the Burning Man founders and the Burning Man BOD have made me feel that the Burning Man Project is undeserving of my money. I sincerely wish that wasn’t the case. To be honest, it’s galling to receive a fund raising request from Burning Man at a time when BMORG is continuing to ignore the concerns of the Burner community. Like many other burners, I’m not buying BMORG’s company line that they are listening to the Burner community and (that BMORG) will get back to them as soon as possible. Whether or not my perception of that situation is accurate I have been given no indications that BMORG values the event and the community as much as the community values the event.

The Commodificaton Camp Controversy is not about poor burners versus rich burners; it’s about the fact that certain members of the Burning Man power structure have misused their positions in such a way that they have introduced class warfare into both the event and countless Burners psychological relationships with (both) the event and those who are meant to protect it. Shame on them for doing so. The event and community deserve better than that. Dusty hugs,

David / Sandstorm”

Here’s the email that was sent out by BMOrg:

From: Burning Man Project <>

Date: Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Subject: Now You Can Gift Burning Man to the World

Remember your first day at Burning Man? Remember how it felt to bring someone to Black Rock City for the first time? While not everyone can be on the playa every year,Burning Man’s year-round programs make the Burning Man experience accessible to all, year-round and across the globe.Burning Man strives to help people live more creative and connected lives year round and around the globe. Our programs in the arts, in civic engagement, and our investment in the leadership of a global network of regional events have inspired millions to embrace a shared value system that promotes thriving artistic endeavors, increased civic involvement, emerging social enterprise and stronger communities.Everything we do is driven by community participation, communal effort and gifting. While the annual event in Black Rock City is paid for by ticket sales, the work we do through our year-round programs depends on your generosity.Your support provides vital resources needed to keep our core programs running, such as our Regional Network which nurtures 240 members in 125 regions across 31 countries. Additionally, our Art Grants Programs provide close to $100,000 in grants for the creation and public exhibition of art in communities around the world and helps artists raise additional funds through fiscal sponsorships. Your generosity also supports our Civic Engagement Programs which provide leadership and funding of community based initiatives through micro grants and volunteer organizing.Together we can turn our growing potential into programs and experiences that will help transform people’s lives throughout the world. We need your support to make it happen. Together we can build a more creative and connected world.

Burning Man Project is a 501(c)(3) organization; all donations to Burning Man Project are tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.


catalyst for creative culture in the world


Burning Man’s Gift Economy and its Effect on Mainstream Society [Update]

Festpop has an article by Karli Jaenike about how Burning Man is changing the world. I’m re-blogging it here so we can then discuss it. Emphasis ours.

re-blogged from FestPop


It’s no secret that most festivals are a huge moneymaker for large corporations. North American companies are projected to spend $1.23 billion to sponsor music venues, festivals and tours in 2014. That’s a 4.4 percent increase from 2013, according to IEG, LLC. IEG also charted out the most active companies sponsoring music festivals in North America with Anheuser-Busch topping the list alongside PepsiCo, Inc. and Coca-Cola Company. Microsoft Corp. (in what’s said to be the company’s first deal with a non-endemic property) sponsored Coachella Music Festival on behalf of its OneDrive storage service, while Samsung and Honda are among the sponsors for the Austin City Limits Music Festival. These corporations will undoubtedly receive a huge return on investment given the growing popularity of music and arts festivals around the world.

Burning Man, an annual arts festival and temporary community based around radical art, radical self-expression and radical self-reliance, stands in stark contrast. Participants who attend this event provide everything they will need for their weeklong adventure except for the main infrastructure. Infrastructure includes necessities like port-o-potties, medical tents, the effigy (which is burnt to the ground at the end of the festival), center camp, land and insurance. Organizers and participants intentionally succeed in creating a setting where decommodification and gifting are part of the core principles of the event.

Decommodification means absolutely no corporate sponsorships of the event, no advertising allowed, and definitely no transactions. Commodification is viewed as exploitation of the Burning Man culture and is frowned upon by most people involved, while at the festival. Many burners (people in the Burning Man community) believe that in many developed countries commodification has gone too far, has reduced people to abstractions and is taking away part of what makes us simple and human. Members of the community are very protective of this principle and will try their best to wipe all corporate influence from the event. This includes covering any visible brand names on the side of box trucks, bicycles, and… well, anything. People at Burning Man want to forget about branding, business, money, and the greed that comes along with it… and just for one week create a space where our humanity is not divided into “quantifiable bits suitable for trading”. What do people do when they want to exchange goods or services? Enter “gifting”.

Seva Cafe DMP2_Page_07

Gifting is the act of giving a gift out of the goodness of ones heart, and not expecting anything in return. The Principles Guidelines page of their website says that, “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Gifting is such, such an important part of what makes Black Rock City (the city created during Burning Man) such a magical place. When gifting is the currency, rather than money or bartering, a strong sense of community evolves. Think about how you feel when you receive an unconditional gift. You feel an instant connection to that person, and a sense of gratitude. You feel loved, because you know that that person is giving you the gift because they appreciate you as a person, not because they are expecting anything in return. It also feels satisfying to give unconditional gifts. “’Gifting with nothing in return’ I feel, is impossible. Only those who have not felt the satisfaction in making someone’s day [with a gift] could say there is nothing given in return” said Domo Delacy, a veteran burner. Domo has received and seen people receive all sorts of amazing gifts on the playa. “I’ve been gifted tickets. I’ve also gifted a couple back to will call. You know someone loves you when they gift you a ticket” said Delacy. “My good friend Capt. Jim was gifted an art car! Under the Oasis was a 67 GMC with brand new running gear… is that a good one or what? Another friend got a naked plane ride.”

Playa gifts can come in many forms, which don’t necessarily have to be physical. “[I received] the gift of expansion and compassion from my fellow camp mates my virgin burn. They taught me what the 10 Principles were with love and compassion,” said Starfire Serendipity Jones, a 10-year burner. Other gifts have included, “bacon, grilled cheese, ice cold melon and fresh espresso from the coffee stand across from camp (fucking heaven), homemade absinthe and banana booze… YUMMMM!” Jones goes on to explain, “I loved & shared many things openly in love [on the Playa]. It was primarily things I could use on Playa or things I “needed”. The people that ‘get it’ are so free and in-flow that we share with out even thinking, it is just part of us. The most beautiful thing is that there is no “us and them”. No scarcity, just sharing… because it is truly a gift to the giver to learn that frame of mind. Giving something just to give it. Not because they expect something in return.” She says, “It breaks the old adage of ‘you can’t get something for nothing’. It also creates a new paradigm for being in the universe and here on terra firma. That off Playa we can live like that in our daily lives. There is enough for everyone to share.”



Another way gifting enhances the experience at Burning Man is that it acts as social lubricant. It gives you an excuse to walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation when you otherwise wouldn’t. Walking through the streets of Black Rock City it’s common to be pulled aside and invited to partake in a cold adult beverage, a game, a tarot card reading, a meal, or a hug. That underlying fear of rejection that most of us unconsciously harbor isn’t a factor at Burning Man because it’s unlikely that anyone would reject a heartfelt gift. Burners feel safe and confident interacting and building connections with others through this system that serves to further strengthen the sense of community.

“The Burning Man Community is […] inspired to create, participate, and celebrate in the world without many of the conventional restrictions of the modern paradigm,” says Zac Cirivello, Burning Man Media Relations Coordinator. “Through exploring the values of our 10 Principles, the Burning Man Community has become a “do-ocracy” where the individual is empowered to directly participate in their surroundings to make the world the way that they want it to be, whether that world is our longtime home of Black Rock City, or the urban environment in which they live.”

This is where radical self-reliance plays an important part. While food, drink, shelter, and friendship are given freely in most cases at Burning Man, all participants are expected to also provide enough for themselves for the week (and maybe enough to share!) Those who show up expecting gifts, or expecting to be ‘taken care of’ are frowned upon. Buying or trading at Burning Man is also extremely taboo, and those who attempt to are reprimanded. “A critical part of the gift economy is how it differs from a barter economy. A barter is still a direct transaction: it assigns a value to an object or act and in turn commodifies it. A “thing” will still then have a “value”. At the core of bartering is the attempt to still create an exchange of equal value. This is the same as “default” world transactions but only with cash removed from the equation,” says Cirivello. “Gifting, on the other hand, is an unconditional offering – an offering with no expectation of return. This removes the assignment of traditional object value (or “price”) and instead puts the emphasis or value on the act of generosity itself. It becomes part of a circular abundance loop where Burners provide for others without the expectation of return because they know that others are there to support them in kind.”


In reality, the gifting economy at Burning Man is not an economy at all, and is somewhat of an oxymoron. Economies are generally self-sustaining and generate wealth for a population; this is not the goal at Black Rock City. The gifting economy at Burning Man is more of a “gift culture”. A gift culture that actually supports and depends on the economy outside of Burning Man. Zac Cirivello states, “While the culture of Burning Man puts a lot of emphasis on our principals of gifting and decommodification, that does not make it a world entirely free of commerce. We have some very real costs associated with the creation of Black Rock City each year including permitting fees, staff support, and a long list of resources required such as vehicles, porto potties, lumber, signage, fuel, etc.” The festival stimulates Nevada’s economy by contributing millions of dollars to rent the land and use the facilities for the festival. Additionally, visiting burners stimulate the economy from which they buy the food, drink, and materials to make their Playa gifts. They also support the economy of the cities surrounding Black Rock City when they purchase their last minute items, gas, and food before the burn.

This culture works at Burning Man because the community makes it so. All participants willingly take part in gifting because they understand it’s part of what makes Burning Man different from everywhere else. There is no need for organizers to enforce or police a gifting economy, because the people uphold these values on their own. “One of the great things about the Burning Man Community is that Burners are incredibly passionate about preserving the integrity of our culture. We, and BMORG, do not have to run around policing our values because they are ones that are strongly shared by a vast majority of citizens in Black Rock City,” says Zac Cirivello. “The gifting economy is a demonstration of a shift in conventional thinking away from a “scarcity mindset” towards an “abundance mindset” – where people recognize that they have enough and want to put their energy towards a betterment of the community as opposed to a betterment only of the self.


While creating a temporary utopian community in which a gifting culture flourishes is an accomplishment in itself, Burning Man and it’s supporters are always looking for ways to share this abundance mindset with the masses. “There is certainly a lot of potential for the Gifting Economy to start impacting the ‘default’ world, and there have been a number of projects that are looking to spearhead that change,” says Cirivello. “One of those projects is [freespace], an experimental project looking to see what is possible with the gift of a physical space to a community, and [this] is also the recent recipient of a financial grant from Burning Man.” [freespace] began in June 2013, and started with a two-story building that was donated to San Francisco’s creative community for a dollar. Since it’s inception, [freespace] has hosted over 300 free events including free bike shares, maker classes for people in homeless shelters, and a community garden.

Nation wide corporations are catching onto the popularity of the gifting mindset, with Panera Bread launching “Panera Cares”. This campaign consists of opening “pay what you can” Panera Community Cafés in Saint Louis, Dearborn, Portland, Chicago, and Boston. These cafes offer dignified dining experiences, without judgment to customers who may not be able to pay. While companies like this are obviously getting publicity and public favor in return for their gifts, it’s definitely a start!

The Internet has made it easy to gift in modern society with online resources such as WikiLinks, Wikimedia Commons, and Creative Commons. People from around the world share their functional work, artwork, or other creative content with others. Participants can use and benefit from shared work, study this work, make and distribute shared content, or build upon shared content to create something new. On the Internet one can also find free and open-source software, free or donation based music, art, and collaborative works. Creative Commons, a non-profit organization founded by Lawrence Lessig, has released several copyright-licenses free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights to their content they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of other creators. Many times, the only stipulation involved with the use of this shared content is that works created from said content must also be shared freely.


Burning Man Organization spreads the message that a gift culture promotes through its many regional burns. “The Burning Man Regional Network is a global network of Burning Man inspired events that help to promote the values and ethos of Black Rock City throughout the world,” says Zac Cirivello. “One of the things required to be included as an Official Regional Event is having an event that embodies the 10 principles, including that of gifting. In much the same way that folks look out for and support each other in Black Rock City, the participants of these events have the opportunity to practice a decommodified existence for a few days at a time and participate in a world where generosity and unconditional gifting are core components.” More than 75 regional burns are held throughout the world at different times of the year. These events change the lives of people who may or may not have been to the “big burn” yet. Regional burns allow people to experience the selfless beauty of a Gifting Economy, and the freedom of decommodification if only for a long weekend. Many burners are inspired to attend the larger Burning Man in Nevada after years of experiencing the positive affects of these local burns on their communities. Zac Cirivello says that one goal of the regional events is to share the Principles with others “Through these events, as with Burning Man, folks are taking the spirit of gifting home with them and promote the global spread of the Gifting Economy.”

Would a Gifting Economy be sustainable in everyday culture? Society would need to experience a major shift in attitude. Many say humans are inherently competitive, egotistical, and even greedy. Problems could arise with determination of value: what may be valuable and a wonderful gift to one person may not be as valued by another. Humanity would have to get past their learned ideals of worth, value, and fairness in order to genuinely place others before themselves. While this kind of economy might seem idealistic to most, the idea is very real for many. The Internet is full of writings on the subject, many of which call for major change. However you stand on the subject, there is no denying that what the Burning Man Organization creates out in that Nevada desert is a beautiful thing.

Back to Burners.Me writing now.

I have no problem with the ideals of Gifting and Decommodification. They’re part of what makes Burning Man special. As the article says, it’s hardly a sustainable economy, it’s more of a culture.

What I do have a problem with, is BMOrg claiming credit for the effort and expenditure of others, and telling the media they’ve done something which they haven’t.

The mention of [freespace] here particularly rankles me.

Burning Man takes in $30 million a year from all the things it sells: tickets, vehicle passes, ice, coffee, scarves, bus rides, aircraft landing fees, gasoline, propane, calendars, photos, movies, soundtracks. They also accept donations, which they accumulate in the bank account of their tax-free non-profit subsidiaries. These 501(c)3 non-profits are required to file public financial statements, called IRS Form 990. You can view them at Guidestar.

From the most recent filings (2012):

Burning Man Project took in $591,672 of donations, kept $368,249, and paid $36,378 in grants. They spent $259,925 on overheads.

Black Rock Arts Foundation took $621,359 of donations, kept $560,917, and paid $114,449 in grants. They spent $477,525 on overheads.

The two organizations have now been merged, to create a tax-exempt powerhouse with about a million bucks of assets (mostly cash).

How much has Burning Man actually given to [freespace]? $0.

I can’t speak to what Burning Man has done to support the Panera bakeries, but I bet that’s $0 too. The idea was shelved in mid-2013. I can definitely speak about [freespace], though.

[freespace] is not actually an organization you can donate to, it is a project of Reallocate – a registered 501(c)3 non-profit started by Burners. Reallocate is a great organization run on a shoestring budget. It’s a genuine charity, they definitely don’t hoard money from donors. When Dr Mike North founded Reallocate, I was the first person he asked to be on its Board of Directors. I am the largest financial contributor to Reallocate. I am also the second largest financial contributor to [freespace]. As well as a pretty significant amount of money, I have given both organizations time – my own, and that of my employees. I have provided expensive resources like decked out shipping containers to support their projects, and covered the related logistics costs. I have also promoted both charities on this web site. up-cycled art containers at [freespace] up-cycled art containers at [freespace]’s Mission St location. Art by Ian Ross Gallery

freespace mission2

Some of these containers have been to Burning Man too. After we deployed them here, [freespace] got a commendation letter from the San Francisco Mayor’s office, and a trip to the White House.


What did BMOrg do, in a year+ of [freespace]? Nothing. Nada. No checks. What little promotion they did, was of themselves first, and the charities they claim to support second. Here’s the entire extent of it:

Global [freespace] movement to hack the World Cup

How [freespace] challenges Burning Man’s emergent principles

Burnerhack at [freespace] SF?

Burners Discuss Community Building in San Mateo

Their story about “emergent principles” sums the situation up well:

In San Francisco Burner circles, close to the source, I often hear the Burner’s Dream expressed thusly: Our dream is to bring the principles we embody out on the playa back to the default world….Sounds like that Burner’s Dream come to life, right? Naturally, Burning Man got involved. But what does that even mean? Who is this “Burning Man?” Is it the Burning Man organization? is it the fledgling non-profit Burning Man Project? Is it Burning Man participants acting of their own accord?


...[the BurnerHack] was organized by Micah Daigle, a Burner who travels in circles close to the Org, but who isn’t officially involved. He’s a participant. He’s also one of the creators of BurnerMap, a Facebook app that allows you to create and print maps of where your friends are camping, and arguably one of the most successful participant-driven Burning Man projects in the event’s history.

BurnerMap has tens of thousands of users. It’s a participant-driven project on the scale of the whole event itself. And yet the Org is not involved. That can make the relationship weird at times. That weirdness extends to physical events like BurnerHack, and even to independent cultural movements like [freespace] itself.

And as Burning Man tries to grow into a year-round culture, we have to figure it out.

…when BurnerMap has reached out to the Org for help, asking to pre-fill the map with official placement data, for instance, the efforts have fizzled out. Priorities are so different on either side of the bottom-up, top-down divide that it can hinder collaboration.

“We need the Org for Burning Man to exist,” Micah says, “but is it Burning Man? No. Burning Man is an emergent event.

The challenge of figuring out how capital-B Burning Man can be productively involved with emergent events like BurnerHack and [freespace] is the domain of the Burning Man Project, the new, nonprofit side of the Org that aims to be the future of year-round Burning Man culture.

Its representative most involved with [freespace] is James Hanusa, who is responsible for the Project’s new initiatives. He knows the [freespace] organizers and believes in them, and he was Micah’s closest point of contact in the planning of BurnerHack. He knows the Project should support initiatives like these, but he says, “We’re still figuring out how.”

The will is there, but the way is not yet clear. The Burning Man Project is busy enough figuring out its own job, so working with spontaneously organized participants is yet another step ahead. 

Here we can see that even by their own admission, BMOrg don’t provide much, if any, help.

The above was written in June 2013. Since then, [freespace] extended its initial lease for 3 months – not for $1, and funded by us – then relocated from Mission St to Market St, where it ran for a further 6 months this year. It closed in August, before Burning Man. So what have BMOrg been doing? Still figuring it out, a year and a half later? How much time do they need to figure out how to write a check to a charity that they tell the media they’re supporting?

We provided a comprehensive overview of everything the Burning Man Project has done since it was announced in early 2011 in The Art of Giving: it’s pretty disappointing, especially given the amount of money they’ve raised in that time, and how much they’ve spent on lawyers and accountants.

It seems like one thing they did figure out, is how to take credit for [freespace] and Reallocate in the press and in their panel discussions.

Here’s some of Burners.Me’s promotion of [freespace]:

[Temporary Autonomous Zone] – Proof the Model Still Works

Bring Something New Out Into The World

Collaborative Coding in [freespace]: Burnerhack

Burners Collaborate to Bridge SF’s Homeless/Tech Divide

Civic Responsibility Hacks the White House

From Central Market to the White House: Taking Burner Values To The Top [freespace] live 7am PST

What’s missing from these stories, compared with Burning Man’s coverage? You won’t find any examples of me talking about how great I am for donating my time and money to these charities, or taking any credit for their efforts. Indeed, I’m only bringing it up now because I am sick and tired of Burning Man boasting to the media about things they haven’t done, while hoarding the cash that was genuinely given to them in good faith by their donors.

I used to drink the Burning Man flavored Kool-Aid, before I did the homework, crunched the numbers, and compared their statements with the truth. Calling their secretive, for-profit royalty company Decommodification LLC was the last straw for me – they’re laughing at us, all the way to the bank. It came as no great surprise to Burners.Me that some of BMOrg’s Board of Directors are now selling Commodification Camps and making commercial videos at Burning Man to promote their brands.

I asked [freespace] founder Mike Zuckerman for comment, and he responded today – see below. Reallocate’s CFO confirmed that neither they nor [freespace] have ever received any grant from Burning Man. He believes Zuckerman earned $2000 personally for working for the Burning Man Project, but the guy appears to have pocketed the money himself, since it has not gone through the charity’s books.

Please, Burning Man. These are charities. Non-profits, trying to help the world. They need our money and support, not just to be used for shameless self-promotion. If you want to use them as examples of how your culture is saving the world…then put your hands in your oh-so-deep pockets, and write a fucking check. Don’t keep the money piling up in your tax-free bank accounts, while telling us how great you are, how you’re all about Decommodification and Gifting. Decommodification doesn’t mean earning royalties, Gifting requires you to actually give more than you take, and Radical Self Expression shouldn’t mean suing other charities.

What else are you doing with that big pile of cash we all gave you? Sending your founders around the world for speaking engagements? Is that what the half a million dollars a year of travel expenses are for?

Put Money Where Mouth IsI know there’s nothing in the Ten Principles about honesty, integrity, conflicts of interest, or the truth. But there should be – some of us do care about these things, more than we care about the almighty dollar. Deceit is not cool, and justifying it in the name of charities that you only pretend to support is pathetic. The Burner community are amazingly talented, creative, and generous – we want to associate ourselves with positive, uplifting things. Lead by example, don’t let Burners take the lead and the risk and spend all the cash, while you try to claim the credit. Step up and put your money where your mouth is.

Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, and Burning Man can produce some evidence of their financial contributions to [freespace], Reallocate, and Panera Bakeries. I’d happily eat my words. The ball’s in your court, BMOrg, and our money is in your pocket. Just Do It.


[Update 10/15/14] Mike Zuckerman, the founder of [ freespace ], emailed me today with this:

To answer your question, Burning Man has been a supporter of [ freespace ] in that they have covered us in social media, their blog and maybe a Jack Rabbit mention (I can’t remember). More than that they included us in their regional network gatherings both in Berlin at the inaugural European Leadership Summit and in SF at the Global Leadership Conference. The [ freespace ] concept is a bit foreign to most newcomers so working with Burners has been super helpful in many of our locations including SF, Paris, Philippines and Detroit as well as a few other cities that haven’t figured out their own locations yet, but I’m optimistic they will. They have also helped by introducing their regional contacts to anyone within the [freespace] network wherever they may be in the world. 
As far as money goes, the BMP gave me $2000 directly to purchase equipment to document the progress of [ freespace ]. I got this cool set up that mounts to my iPhone that I saw a kid with at SXSW. I consider myself an iPhoneographer, but the iPhone sucks in low light, wide angle, memory capacity, recording sound and holding it steady. So I got all of those things added externally. It looks kinda crazy but is pretty amazing quality for a phone and can be broken down to fit into my pockets. Im not a pro videographer, but there has been a lot of exciting developments and I’m grateful to have captured a lot of it. There wound up being 9 [ freespaces ] in our 1st year. The second location in SF did close just before Burning Man, but the movement is still alive and there is a constant stream of inquiries from all over the world. We are planning to go again for National Day of Civic Hacking in June of 2015 or other cities may do their own thing if they want. I don’t remember exactly when they gave me the $2K, probably in May. 
So there you go – Burning Man did not give [freespace] any grant. They gave an individual $2k to buy video equipment for himself, which presumably he can also use to document Burning Man and anything else that takes his fancy. That is 3 VIP tickets – hardly a significant grant to help a charity. I don’t need to get into specifics, but I gave them MUCH more than that. And I don’t make $30 million per year, or have a charity which takes in $1.2 million+ a year of donations.
“Promoting [ freespace ] to their Regional Network” is the same as “promoting themselves to their Regional Network”. The more videos they have to show, the better they look when claiming credit for the idea. Burners gift the work, BMOrg takes the glory.
This [ freespace ] video from July 2014 has 3 views on YouTube: