Burning Man Becomes Nonprofit Case Study for the Public By Happenstance

burning-man

Burning Man 2012 / Bureau of Land Management

December 16, 2016; Reno Gazette-Journal

When Burning Man became a 501(c)(3)3 in 2014 it became responsible for a certain level of transparency that the press, for some reason, has taken gleeful advantage of over the past few years. This is the second year we have seen a detailed press exposé of its budget with not much “there” there.

The Reno Gazette Journal reports that the organization spent $35.8 million against revenue of $36.9 million. More than two-thirds of its revenue came from ticket sales and it plans to use its surplus to invest in its future. Sounds pretty good to us in terms of being a well-managed organization. The conclusion drawn by the paper?

While the organization that touts its 10 principles—such as radical inclusion, radical self-expression and gifting—may be making more than ever, it also is spending more than ever. The organization’s total revenue climbed year-over-year by 14 percent while total spending increased by 19 percent, according to 2015 tax documents.

But maybe the story is in the salary? It turns out that Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell is making only $246,000, having received a raise of 1 percent and Larry Harvey, the founder, made around $197,000 and apparently got no raise. Okay so that is not where the story is unless you see the story as finally dispelling the myth that you must pay a mission-flouting high price for super-competent business leadership.

We find out that $4 million went for contracts “including portable toilets,” presumably an allowable expense considering what might occur without them. So no scandal there but—really—does there have to be a suggestion of wrongdoing to make the financial facts interesting to the public?

So, unless you object to the provision of nonprofit status to a “party in the desert” that attracts a woeful number of high profile rich folk and claims to be a great venue for personal transformation (I’m out—thanks), as well as a bastion of capitalist values, maybe there just is no story in the Burning Man annual budget. Nevertheless, it is a great case study of what a certain kind of nonprofit budget might look like and that might, in and of itself be a good thing. A little more nonprofit numeracy amongst our public—and media—would be a very good thing. – Ruth McCambridge

  • Pam Campbell

    Thanks for this little article. I have wondered about the fascination with Burning Man – and I also am a big fan of its 10 principles. I always love it when I think I see evidence of the principles in action (which I do think I see around me from time to time – in the kindness and generosity of ‘hippie’ types.)

    I would also like to say that in my humble opinion, there does not need to be scandal to be interesting. A story with a happy ending is a beautiful thing… At least I enjoy them. Cheers!

    • ruth

      Me too! I actually loved reading about its budget and it can’t help but familiarize the public with that one – albeit unusual – model.