One challenge of discussing the development of an organization with an “unusual” output (i.e., a week-long arts community devoted to countercultural principles) is having to explain what the organization produces. In conference presentations, publications, and even casual conversation, I always have to explain what Burning Man is about since my audience usually doesn’t know much, if anything, about the event. Even then audience members are mystified, “Burning what? They burn a person?!?”
The media has had similar difficulties. In earlier years, past media accounts tended to describe Burning Man with terms that public relations volunteers found undesirable or problematic – Woodstock, paganism, rave, etc.
In contrast, in recent years, Burning Man has assumed a level of taken-for-grantedness such that it no longer requires explanation or description. Imagine my surprise when reading a recent New Yorker article (“Lost” by Ian Parker) about the economic meltdown in Iceland. The article combined three words that I had never dreamed that I would see together in the same sentence: Burning Man and Tiananmen.
The recent brouhaha over AIG’s bonus compensation illustrates two issues pertinent to all organizations:
(1) If you accept (or are forced to accept) funds from the government, be prepared to kowtow to conflicting demands and face intensive grillings by ill-prepared politicians.
(2) If you want to maintain your legitimacy as an organization, be prepared to deal with the media. The media plays a crucial role in framing issues and making issues more or less salient. For instance, why has recent media coverage focused on the $165 million in bonuses that AIG paid out, as opposed to other alternative stories about how our taxes are allocated, such as the $515 BILLION used for military spending? Or how an estimated $1 BILLION in governmental subsidies help ensure that Wal-Mart earns $12.8 BILLION in profit while its workers do not have a living wage or health care?
In the past two days, both the NYTimes and Wall St. Journal have reported that with the recent massive layoffs, a deluge of highly skilled volunteers are now available to help non-profits and voluntary associations. How can organizations best integrate these new volunteers and tap their talents, while meeting volunteers’ interests?
My studies of the Burning Man organization revealed that this organization excelled at tapping volunteers’ interests and (lack of) skills. Rather than being pigeonholed into certain tasks, volunteers could develop their own roles, and they also develop skills. Some volunteers spearheaded projects, such a recycling center, a question and answer service, and a message service, that became part of the organizational infrastructure.