Far more than a modern day bacchanal, Burning Man has grown to become one of the most vibrant cultural events in the United States, spinning off art, music, urban planning, and industrial design ideas year round.
With Burning Man underway this week, I thought this would be a perfect time to explore the fuel that Burning Man uses to power its events: participant involvement and volunteering.
Voluntary activity has always been the driving heart of Burning Man. By leveraging the interests and skills of volunteers, Burning Man has been able to grow each year. Indeed, by many counts, Burning Man is the largest participatory cultural event in the nation – which is to say, people who go aren’t just attendees, they are creating the event while it takes place in real time.
So how does Burning Man generate so much passion and excitement to get involved?
1. Make it easy for people to believe in your work.
The mission of Burning Man is to generate a society that “connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society… the experience of Burning Man can produce positive spiritual change in the world.”
Most “Burners” may not know this mission word for word, but they understand that BM is an experiment in self-organization, radical self-reliance and creativity – sadly, all things that we don’t have enough time to practice in our daily lives.
2. Make it fun to be involved.
At times Burning Man can be like Disneyland for adults – no end of distracting, fun and crazy things to climb on, ride on, fall on, skate on. Mirroring this, even while it spends 12 months each year planning for one week of an event, Burning Man doesn’t take itself too seriously – or at least, it recognizes the role of play in bringing people together.
That’s one reason new visitors are encouraged to get out of the car and roll on the ground once they reach the gates, why volunteers at Black Rock’s temporary airport sometimes dress up like retro flight attendants, and why so many of its themed camps using games to engage audiences.
3. Be inclusive – find ways for everyone to help out.
More than 30 mission critical projects – from editing the event newspaper to staffing the box office to making espresso at center camp – are listed as volunteer options on the BM website. And those are just the official projects of Burning Man.
Hundreds of theme camps involve volunteers in every conceivable way to build structures, plan events, feed participants, and ensure things run smoothly. Many volunteers serve as docents on the playa, keeping an eye on the art, answering questions about projects and making sure attendees don’t, er, kill themselves climbing on the giant Trojan Horse.
4. Empower volunteers as leaders.
Volunteers, especially those with skills, are given significant responsibility at Burning Man. Over time, many of those volunteers become leaders on their own, self organizing growing groups of attendees in pods or camps that are able to play an important role in the experience of event goers… with very little direct involvement of Burning Man the organization.
In fact, many of the staff and leaders of Burning Man were themselves volunteers whose work and commitment made them shine.
It’s easier to embrace leadership for volunteers within a mission based on radical self-reliance, but the message here is that passion, ability and a bit of a structure can go a long way towards expanding capacity through leadership development.
5. Acknowledge volunteers in lots of ways.
Credit is shared at Burning Man, and thanks are heartfelt. Perhaps that’s the reason so many goers cite their involvement in volunteer projects and activities as the central part of their entire BM experience.
Key to volunteer recognition and appreciation are the activities of the Volunteer Resource Team. During the long months between Burning Man, a lot of their time is spent producing events and projects specifically designed to keep volunteers connected and make them feel appreciated and loved.
6. Ritualize your events to create more meaning.
The week-long Burning Man calendar comes to life through rituals, most famously with the complete destruction by fire on Saturday night of the towering Man and the burning, the next day, of the graceful Temple. The camps empty out for these two rituals, the former frenetic and wild, and the latter solemn.
Rituals at your nonprofit can ground participants and volunteers in the moment by connecting their activity to the larger cycles of work and life. Mark holidays, starts and stops, successes. Repeat experiences with the intention of setting them in stone. Create an historical archive and reference its riches.
What rituals are you developing in your program? Regardless of timbre, the keys to ritual are to be consistent, mindful and heartfelt.
7. Put the Web (not social) at the heart of your digital strategy.
There are some great apps to help attendees make the most of Burning Man, but the website of Burning Man and the regular newsletter that you can sign up for are still the heart of Burning Man digital strategy. Luckily for volunteer prospects, Burning Man easily clears the ‘musts’ of volunteer engagement online:
Volunteers have a clear path to learn more from the home page.
There’s a permanent link that can be seen from all pages to “Participate”.
There is a dedicated page (and then some) about all the ways to volunteer, complete with stories of volunteers and a description of the impact volunteers can make.
8. Learn from your mistakes.
Even a quick glance of Burning Man staff and board bios shows the strange path the administrative leaders of Burning Man have taken. Few have a background perfectly suited for their roles. Instead, they’ve learned to be good (even great) at what they do by working hard, learning from experts and consultants, talking about what’s working and not, and then working harder to do it better the next time.
By next week the art will be gone, the fires will be out, and the camps will be packed up. Even while a few volunteer teams comb the former campsites to prepare their final environmental impact reports, pull up the stakes on the storm fence, and pick up the last of the windblown debris, other teams at Burning Man – and countless happy Burning Man attendees – will already be planning next year’s event. The goal, of course, will be an even better experience.
What other lessons from Burning Man might there be? Share them here.
Robert led VolunteerMatch's communications until 2014 and is editor of Volunteer Engagement 2.0. Today he lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he works with VSO, the leading INGO involving volunteers in the fight against poverty.