In the wake of Burning Man's cancellation and the subsequent DGS ticket refund period, I and others found ourselves with some questions about the community fundraising the Org is doing, how the Org is reacting to the need to cancel, and Maid Marian's thoughts on the future of Burning Man.
Marian kindly agreed to an interview to provide some answers, so let's hear what she has to say. However, a note: I originally wrote most of these questions in mid-May, but due to various reasons including wanting to focus on Burning Man's response to George Floyd's murder, Marian wasn't able to get me the full answers back until June 18th. Unfortunately, the next day Facebook (where I want to be able to share this) put me in 'jail' for a week for something anti-Trump I had written, and I left to go camping soon thereafter, thus the delay in publishing this.
Dr. Yes: How has the move to remote work gone? Do you see a future with more staff working from home? If so, do you think that going forward there will be a lot more hires from different parts of the country and world that don’t require San Francisco-level salaries?
Maid Marian: All of the above is on the table. The rising cost of living in the Bay Area has been a factor for a while. We opened an office in Reno last year and 14 year-round employees are currently based there.
Before COVID we had been working on a 3-5 year plan for supporting a more distributed work model. That plan has now been expedited. Part of the distributed work model does allow us to hire outside the Bay Area, and makes it possible for staff to move out of the area if necessary.
The transition to working remotely has gone quite well. We recently conducted a survey with staff and the vast majority report a high level of satisfaction with working from home.
We have long been a global organization, and have engaged employees and contractors based in various places across the country and around the world.
Dr. Yes: Relatedly, has there been any thought given to transitioning HQ to a less expensive city (Reno, etc) to save on future expenses?
Maid Marian: We are actively exploring many different options for saving on rent and operational expenses. These include moving the San Francisco office, downsizing the office, increasing our presence in Reno, and moving to a more distributed workforce.
That said, we have a very significant volunteer base and active community in San Francisco. It’s the original home of the event so there is a huge local community that supports us on many levels. Decades of relationship building and significant financial investments have been made in the area. We can’t just move the office and expect people to follow.
Our landlord in San Francisco has been collaborating with us and has given us a reduced rate on our rent for the remainder of this year.
Dr. Yes: I know there have been staff cuts and, of course, a lot of seasonal workers who aren’t being/won’t be hired this year, and I gather there were salary cuts as well. How many full-time staff had to be let go? About how much did that save?
Maid Marian: We can’t gut the staff and expect to be ready to pull off a cultural gathering the size and scale of Black Rock City as safely and efficiently as we have in the past so we are doing everything possible to keep our incredibly hardworking staff members employed.
That said, we have made some cuts to contractors, seasonal staff, and laid off a very limited number of our year-round, full-time staff. These staffing changes, combined with cuts to operational costs and primarily the elimination of the costs we preliminarily budgeted and expected to incur producing Black Rock City, represent an estimated monthly savings of roughly $2,600,000 (of course it depends on the month since our costs vary greatly depending on the time of year). This is based on estimated and projected numbers. Additional note: This is unaudited financial information as of June 16, 2020 and represents our best estimates. Audited financial information from 2020 will be available in 2021.
Maid Marian: We had an internal debate about what the lowest percentage amount should be. We decided to launch with 10% and to see how it went. We opted to remove that option part way through in the hopes that more people would donate 25%.
Of course, everyone had the option of getting a full refund and then turning around and making a donation separately. So everyone had the freedom and flexibility to donate the exact dollar amount they felt comfortable with. We saw quite a few people take that option - they requested a refund and made a donation separately.
We’re also seeing theme camps collaborating together to run fundraisers to benefit Burning Man Project which we’re tremendously grateful for.
Dr. Yes: What’s the plan to make up the shortfall, which sounds like, based on the April 30 Journal article, comes out to about $10m-<DGS refunds>? Did you get any of the $2.4m in Paycheck Protection Program funds you applied for? (For those unaware, that was/is a US program to offer forgivable loans to organizations with employees so they can keep people employed during these Covid-19 times.)
Maid Marian: The amount of the shortfall changes weekly based on incoming donations, refunds from the government, and our fluctuating (in this case decreasing) monthly operational costs. At this moment, we are aiming to raise $7 million to get us through 2020.
We did receive a PPP loan from the SBA for approximately $2.5 million (not all of that will be entirely forgivable), which is helping to cover the cost of salaries and office rent for the months of May and June.
Dr. Yes: Has there been any meaningful movement from the Bureau of Land Management on a potential refund of the ~$1.9m that’s been paid to them so far this year? If not, do you think it’s likely to happen?
Maid Marian: We’ve received the vast majority of those funds from the BLM, but are now debating some expenses related to the 2020 event they claim to have already incurred.
Dr. Yes: I'm sure it's a huge relief to have gotten most of that back as well as the PPP money.
That April 30th Journal article talked about reaching out to direct donors to garner large donations. Does the source of the money to save Burning Man matter in your eyes, in the sense of how much comes from mega donors vs. a lot of smaller community member donors? Is there worry that taking money from big donors means they expect something in return? Placement for their camp or something? How do you navigate those relationships organizationally?
Maid Marian: We are clear up front that there is no tangible reward for a major donor, except the joy of saving Burning Man. We raised the funds to purchase Fly Ranch and there were no tangible rewards for major donors. It’s about identifying and working with contributors who know and understand our culture, and are interested in gifting in the true sense of the word.
We don’t want donations only coming from high-dollar donors. We think it’s important to demonstrate support from across the community more broadly. To that end, our fundraising plan creates opportunities for everyone to participate in securing the future of Burning Man, at all levels.
We are preparing to launch a crowd-funding campaign with some fun gifts for donors. We are also seeking donations from those who have the capacity to make a larger gift. We believe all sizes of gifts are necessary to our survival.
We are not willing to offer placement or other perks within Black Rock City in exchange for donations. In fact we have a public Statement of Values on Gifting to that effect, which can be found here: https://burningman.org/network/about-us/statement-of-values-on-gifting
Our hope with our fundraising strategies is to 1). Ensure the survival of the organization and our ability to produce Black Rock City and 2). Prevent the need to drastically increase the price of tickets to Black Rock City in the future.
Dr. Yes: Speaking of the community, unless you had DGS tickets this year, which is only a portion of the Burning Man community, all that’s been heard about the fundraising is crickets. There was the one Journal post on the 30th and that’s pretty much it. Why not more outreach to the broad community, vs just theme camp leaders and DGS holders? Burning Man has meant a lot to a lot more people than that group, I think. [Note: recall that I had sent that question in mid-May.]
Maid Marian: We 100% agree. On Friday, May 22 I sent a newsy email with a soft ask to 2017, 2018, and 2019 ticket buyers. We received some donations from this ask, less than $45,000.
I felt strongly that we couldn’t ask for anything until we completed the process for the DGS refunds and donations so that we had a better sense of where we stood financially. This took time, and meanwhile we were doing math and chasing dollars with different agencies and trying to determine how much of the PPP loan was forgivable. It took real time to get good numbers, and we have enough money to get through a few months so we wanted to launch thoughtful campaigns not created in a hurry.
We are in this for the long haul. We’re going to be fundraising for the foreseeable future and are taking steps accordingly. We plan to reach out to the entire community, in many ways. In addition to reaching out to individuals with the capacity to give large donations, we’ll be emailing specific groups, launching a general crowd-funding campaign, working with theme camps, volunteers, the regional network and others to help support our fundraising efforts.
We also fully recognize the unique global moment we’re in, where lives and livelihoods are being lost due to COVID-19, and efforts to raise money for pandemic relief are a top priority. And when the Black Lives Matter movement gained renewed momentum we knew that wasn’t the time to be launching anything for Burning Man.
That said, we still believe the world needs and will need Burning Man more than ever. Art and creativity inspire connection and community, and we want to be able to keep nurturing creative culture, civic engagement, and collaboration.
Dr. Yes: Given that the community is rescuing the Org, has there been any thought given to the idea of making some or all the Board seats elected by the community? I feel as if that’d make the Burning Man Project a truly community-run organization, which feels really solidly within the spirit of Burning Man. I see a potentially really attractive story there: Privately-owned LLC -> Public benefit non-profit -> community-owned public benefit non-profit. Is that a route you could ever see the Org consider?
Maid Marian: That’s not been the intention in building the nonprofit. We feel the current vision for running the organization is driven by Burning Man’s cultural founders and a diverse and highly capable board.
It’s unlikely in my lifetime we would ever have board members elected by the community. The Board exists to support the entity. The mission for the entity is to extend the culture which means stimulating the community and various corners of the community.
If you consider the fact that all of the board members are community members, all have engaged in camps or art or volunteerism the board is made of community members. You can’t be a board member without being active in the community.
Dr. Yes: One sentiment I hear a lot is that people want to donate to save Burning Man, the event, and resent that some of their donations will go to support the Project’s other activities. Two questions here: Can you tell us about what % of the Org’s revenue goes for things that don’t directly contribute to putting on Burning Man? People would be interested to hear that broken down to the high-level functions (Burning Man, regional support, Fly Ranch, BWB, philosophical center, whatever else).
Maid Marian: A lot of this information is available in public documents including our 990s and Annual Reports. Our most recent one for 2019 is available here, and in the financials section you can see that more than 80% of Burning Man Project’s costs are spent on Black Rock City. On that same page you can find the breakdown of costs for other program areas. On page 3 of the 2018 990 you can see that a little over $1.25 million went toward “civic engagement” in 2018, which includes the Regional Network and Burners Without Borders. On this page you can see a detailed breakdown of BRC-related expenses: https://burningman.org/expenses/. All of this info is for the most recent year that we have audited financial info available, which is 2018.
The financials give some helpful information but it’s also important to understand that our work is very intertwined across program areas. We are all working on Black Rock City while simultaneously supporting the global culture in the world.
We can’t really do one without the other. It would be irresponsible (in terms of the impact of Burning Man on the wider world) not to nurture and support the people who are taking the culture out into their communities to make Burning Man happen. The culture is more than Black Rock City. Those who “resent the other activities” are welcome to reflect on whether they think they want to participate in Black Rock City since the other programs are deeply wrapped around the events and vice versa. It’s unfortunate more people don’t see beyond the celebratory event and recognize the power of change from Burning Man can be manifested outside of the event. We’re just supporting the existing do-ocracy. It would happen without us, and does. And ultimately, the amount of money spent on initiatives beyond Black Rock City is minimal.
To address more directly why we don’t ‘just focus on Black Rock City’ as many in the community have suggested, here are some additional things to consider:
We are considering a subscription option that would look like a membership for BWB and Fly. There is discussion about the same thing for general support of the organization. It’s not out of the question we would make it possible for people to choose where they want their funds to go. But it’s not currently in the design of the fundraising we need right now. The need is way too urgent and immediate for the future of BRC to start new administrative processes that could potentially stymie the entire system without careful thought.
Dr. Yes: There are people wondering why the Org cited protecting the structure of its ticket distribution as a reason to deny the FOIA request to the BLM since the ticket distribution is public. Can you shed some light on why there’s a need to protect that info, even though it’s made public on your site? It looks pretty odd from the outside, and brings up questions from people about how tickets are actually distributed.
Maid Marian: The Bureau of Land Management routinely steps beyond its authority in the administration of the Burning Man Special Recreation Permit, as illustrated by its intent to provide confidential FOIA-exempt information about the Burning Man organization and Black Rock City operations to a member of the public. While our general ticket distribution structure is indeed public on our website, the financial details of our business, beyond what is required by the IRS for our nonprofit (with which we comply every year), are not. BLM can not decide to supersede FOIA and IRS requirements, and that is why we took a stand. We believe that the court will agree with us.
This most recent FOIA incident is fundamentally about oversight of BLM’s processes and is yet another example of the agency’s unwillingness to work cooperatively with Burning Man or other Nevada permittees on federally managed lands. As a federal agency, BLM is obligated to work for the public good, but our recent experience with them is that they are less and less inclined to take the time needed to consult appropriately with us or to ensure their decisions are fair. We have to defend ourselves at every turn.
Dr. Yes: I’m not going to ask you to speculate on the chances that Covid-19 prevents Burning Man 2021 from happening as nobody can really predict that right now, but how big of a threat is the apparently deteriorating relationship with the BLM to holding BM 2021?
Maid Marian: New impositions and unnecessary cost requirements from BLM are making the future viability of producing Black Rock City on BLM public lands extremely challenging.
In 2014 BMP was required to pay BLM $3.5 million in costs - 300% more than in 2011, even though Black Rock City's population grew by only 39% during that period. We were also required to pay a million dollars in recreation fees. To this day, BLM overcharges BMP and continues to increase costs each year. We paid BLM nearly $5 million to permit our event in 2019. Then BLM increased their costs by another $500k approximately for 2020 (if we were going to hold the event).
We have shared with senior agency officials that we can no longer agree with nor are we willing to be subjected to outrageous and unjustified demands in order to secure the necessary permit.
In cooperation with BLM and state & local agencies, we have responsibly held the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert for nearly 30 years. We take our responsibility as stewards of public lands seriously and have passed every post-event environmental inspection, under standards that we believe are the strictest in the country.
We are coming out of a multi-year Environmental Impact Statement process that exposed recurring and new concerns, including BLM’s attempt to impose unreasonable and wholly unjustified mitigations like dumpsters, private security, and concrete barriers in BRC.
All of that said, our hope is that this year will provide a reset opportunity with our relationship with the BLM. We are already seeing some evidence of that happening.
We are also looking at developing new, creative, culturally-aligned sources of revenue that would also create substantial community benefit.
Dr. Yes: Relatedly, if the relationship with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) frays to the point that it’s not feasible to hold the event on public lands, is there any plan B that’s workable? For the sake of argument, let’s say workable without significantly shrinking the event.
Maid Marian: In the past we’ve researched quite a few alternative sites. There are options in a few different places with different variables and different compromises. We always have backup plans. Our hope, however, is that this year without Black Rock City will create the space and time for a ‘reset’ in our relationship with the BLM and that we’ll be able to return to our home in the Black Rock Desert in 2021.
We are the largest user of public land in this format so the difficulties are expected, but the failure to work with us in a respectful way and the petty bureaucratic maneuvers at the local level have been incredibly frustrating.
Overall we’ve always had to negotiate with the BLM. The more complex we became, the more complex the negotiations and challenges. We’ve suffered from a lack of leadership at the BLM at the state level, but that’s been rectified and we’re working well with the new state director.
Dr. Yes: Can you confirm that a DPW member committed suicide after not being hired on for the season? Is there anything the Org can/is doing to help folks who are imperiled like that due to being laid off or not hired as expected? Is there anything the community can do?
Maid Marian: DPW did lose a crew member to suicide recently. They were eligible for rehire but that process hadn't started yet. We have no reason to believe the suicide was related, but it is no less heartbreaking to lose a member of our community.
We have offered support services like counseling and listening circles, and are investing in additional tools and resources for supporting the needs of our people and keeping the community connected, especially the core staff who build Black Rock City each year. We’ve held two all-staff meetings for this group, and I’ve reached out to them personally via email. The people who make BRC possible are truly one big family, and we are pulling together to help everyone through this difficult time.
There are a few support sites that the community has stepped forward to create too. Leveler is a peer to peer wealth distribution tool. The aim is to provide a platform for those who are being financially impacted by the current economic crisis to reach out for help, and for those who can help to be able to connect with them. The Leveler team had made one for the Burning Man community here.
Also BRC Aid is a mutual aid project for the staff and volunteers of Black Rock City. It’s a system where people can contribute their skills and services, and ask for help. Hundreds have already contributed.
Dr. Yes: Burning Man is a pretty overwhelmingly white event, and while I think everyone understands that’s not by plan, it is what it is. Larry Harvey famously said that there aren’t more black people at Burning Man because black people don’t like camping. Do you think that explains the relative lack of POC representation at Burning Man? Do you think it’s important to increase POC representation at Burning Man, and if so, how do you think the Org and the community would go about encouraging that?”
Maid Marian: We are working to embrace and recognize the importance of this moment as an organization and as a culture. As our recent statement on racial justice and Radical Inclusion notes, we are leaning in, listening, and learning from members of the community, including Black leaders who are part of the Black Rock City community. We hope to constructively move this conversation forward, a conversation that naturally includes the topic of representation of people of color in Black Rock City. It’s a conversation we’ve had for years actually - here’s a 2016 piece written by Census volunteer Uncle Vern that talks about representation in BRC and some of the related challenges.
A more diverse event and culture is something we hope for. How Burning Man Project contributes directly to achieving that goal is to be determined, but we’re here for the conversation and we want to learn how best to approach it. In the meantime, we’re looking for new ways to engage, and we’re going to keep moving forward with things we’ve already started, including:
Dr. Yes: Let's wrap up with some personal questions! What does Burning Man (the event) mean to you, today?
Maid Marian: It’s an annual ritual; it’s something I've helped facilitate. I’ve made new friends and it’s changed my life. I feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to something so magical.
Dr. Yes: So where do you find your magic on the playa/in BRC after so many years?
Maid Marian: The magic for me is in helping bring our camp together. We had 250 people from 30 countries in 2018. Some are staff and family, some are board members, some are people we meet when traveling, which includes, artists, event producers, politicians, community and business leaders, and all kinds of people. It’s very rewarding to bring people together. I’m doing the closest thing to running a theme camp which makes me happy. I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing I’d be part of a super fun theme camp that came back year after year.
Dr. Yes: What’s the biggest mistake you think you’ve made as CEO of Burning Man, or perhaps as de facto CEO before you had the title? Conversely, what are you proudest of having done in that role?
Maid Marian: Matt, the trouble with these two questions is that they focus on me and what I am proud of or not proud of. I am pleased with the way I work hard to contribute and look for the best in everyone and strive to help make the world a better place with Burning Man. But I can’t say there is any one thing I am most proud of or that there is a single biggest mistake as CEO. There isn’t anything that isn’t done in the company of others. The work is collaborative in nature. I am CEO because I was asked to take the role and I am suited for the demands and have the skill set. I see decisions as opportunities to move forward and in some cases we have to make a new decision. I’m more a “pound in t-stakes for the fence” sort of person. So there isn’t anything I can remark about that I feel singularly proud of as CEO except to say that we should all be proud of the event having such a long life with more to live. It isn’t by accident that we have prevailed when others think we should stop. It is by sheer force of will by many that we are still making Black Rock City happen!
Dr. Yes: If you had three wishes to use to change future Burning Mans in any way you want, what would you use them on?
Thanks so much for the answers, Marian!
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I'm Dr. Yes. I run this site, lead a theme camp called Friendgasm, and make Burning Man videos. Just say yes, folks, and help keep Burning Man weird!