Burning Man: Social Responsibility in a Changing World
April 17th, 2018
by Priscila Aoki
There's been a swelling consumer trend in America that may just be cresting; increasingly people have begun to demand things unheard of fifty years ago. Corporate social responsibility has become expected, an alleged symbol to consumers that companies care about more than the bottom line. According to Forbes, more than 88% of consumers think companies should try to achieve their goals while improving society.  Corporations can appear to support and build a culture around them that is beneficial to their workers, consumers, and the planet, or they can wither within the market where the demand for socially conscious services continues to increase. 
Burning Man, an organization that prides itself on its culture of communal effort and
self-expression, meets the demand of individuals who have grown tired of consumerist society.
Their core principles of decommodification, gifting, and participation are key reasons for why
they have grown from a small get together on a San Francisco beach to an international
organization that hosts an annual 70,000 people art festival in the middle of the desert.
Small Beginnings to Big Profits
“The nascent institutions we’d invented, sometimes half in jest, became realities. Our city, many
of us felt, had acquired a soul.” -Larry Harvey 
It was 1986 when Larry Harvey first burned a wooden man with a couple of friends on the
beach. Ten years later after a series of unfortunate accidents, the founders of Burning Man saw
the need for organizational structure, better safety guidelines, and a way to fund the now-annual
event in the desert. They created Black Rock City LLC, turning their group of desert festival
goers into a limited liability company.
Though this technically worked in allowing Burning Man to grow in size with organizational
support, it also led many people to question the principles of the corporation. How could
people who truly believe in decommodification run a for-profit corporation? As Burning Man
and those who wanted to try and expand its principles beyond the event in Black Rock City
grew, the founders realized they once again had to make a change.
Twenty-eight years after the first burn, Burning Man transitioned to a nonprofit, encompassing
the arts festival, Black Rock Arts Foundation (which provides arts grants), Burners Without
Borders (a disaster relief and grassroots program), and a global network. UC Berkeley Social
Impact Fellow, Jennifer Walske, analyzes the change from LLC to nonprofit and the struggle
within the nonprofit to continue growing in her latest case study “Burning Man: Moving from a
For-Profit to a Nonprofit, the Ultimate Act of Gifting.”
Does this mean every company that truly values social responsibility is on a path to the nonprofit
sector? Not necessarily. According to Forbes, most consumers think companies should support
nonprofits with financial donations, not become the nonprofits themselves.  However, Burning
Man’s decision reflects its key principles of inclusion, gifting, and participation. Staying an LLC
would have undermined its goals because it hindered their ability to cultivate its culture
worldwide and its ability to ensure it could outlast its founders. 
Now, as a nonprofit, Burning Man can continue to spread their ideas and community while
being almost entirely funded by their community through donations and ticket sales. Despite
this, as they expand, they must decide how to keep their principles alive and centered. Can they
truly become a global movement when 80% of their attendees are white and from the US? Can
they be "radically inclusive" when ticket prices automatically exclude a portion of the
And how can they justify the millionaire tech gurus who use the festival to party,
use their capital to build luxury camps, and directly neglect the decommodification principle of
As companies grow, their leaders constantly choose between the economically profitable path
and the socially optimal one. Burning Man founders not only make their Form 990s and annual
reports easily available online, they also explain why they are choosing to fund each project.
Their transition to a nonprofit--made possible by the founders donating their shares of the
company--their devotion to their civic, educational, community and artist support, and their
decision to not hike ticket sale prices even though their 2017 festival sold out in 35 minutes,
shows that they are trying to be more socially conscious.
Yes, demand for their expensive tickets are high, but within that is the demand for a culture that
focuses on its people. In Burning Man’s FAQ page, they answer the question “What makes
Burning Man happen?” with a short and simple “You.”
What Burning Man teaches us is that
whether nonprofit or corporation, the spirit lies within the people. Whether this spirit will last
will depend on what the organization chooses to focus on. For now, the choice to go nonprofit
has added sparks to the burning spirit of Black Rock City.
About the Author
Priscila Aoki is a second year Environmental Economics and Policy major at the University of California, Berkeley and is an editorial assistant for the California Management Review. She intends on working on cap and trade policies and is also the communications coordinator for the Residential Sustainability Program.
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