Burning Man: Moving From a For-Profit to a Nonprofit, the Ultimate Act of Gifting

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This case centers on Burning Man as an organization, and how its leadership intentionally moved from a for-profit limited liability corporation to a non-profit 501 (c)(3), in keeping with a long-term view of what was in the Burning Man community’s best interests. Burning Man started thirty-one years ago with two friends burning a wooden effigy on Baker Beach. Since then, the annual Labor Day event has grown significantly in attendance and scope, with more than 70,000 participants in 2017. The expansive grounds of “the playa,” where the Burning Man event is held, transforms into a city shaped like a clock face, with well-marked streets, camps, and luminously large pieces of art that reach over seventy feet tall. During the annual Burning Man event, nothing can be sold except for coffee and ice, in keeping with the organization’s emphasis on decommodification and gifting.

Four years ago, each of the six founders and original partners of Black Rock City LLC, the original organization that ran Burning Man, “gifted” over $7 million in market value by transferring all ownership of Burning Man to a non-profit entity known as the Burning Man Project (BMP). This transition becomes complete in 2018 when all trademarks (including the Burning Man name and logo) transfer fully to the newly formed BMP. This organizational transition is in keeping with the core values of Burning Man, as reflected in the organization’s 10 Principles. Specifically, it would have been discordant for the owners to have sold Black Rock City LLC for a high profit to a more commercially focused firm such as Live Nation. Even though the six founders received little to no compensation for their many years of service, and were now approaching retirement age, they each only received $46,000 in compensation for the transference of all rights associated with Black Rock City LLC to BMP. At the time of this case, the many organizations that once were affiliated but separate from Black Rock City LLC have now been folded into the non-profit BMP. The last, but very important part of the prior organization to be folded into BMP are the various trademarks associated with Burning Man, which is scheduled to happen in 2018.

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