Volunteerism at Burning Man

Burning Man has built and expanded its community by encouraging volunteer participation at all levels and at every capacity. It is difficult to put an exact number on how many volunteers it takes to make Burning Man happen, since literally every participant can be counted as a volunteer: some participants sign up to volunteer for Burning Man’s infrastructure teams, some volunteer in advance for an autonomous theme camp, an art project or event, and some are walk-in volunteers who offer a helping hand wherever the opportunity presents itself –  before, during, and/or after the event.

The management of volunteers for Burning Man infrastructure teams takes yearlong preparation: planning, recruitment, training, management, review and evaluation. Since 2001, the Burning Man Project has developed manuals, tools and events to support these processes.  A Volunteer Team was originally created as a support team for Volunteer Coordinators (VCs) and Managers.  This team’s main responsibilities were development of a project-wide training manual for VCs, maintenance of the volunteer database, organizing the annual Town House/Open House volunteer recruitment event, and holding regular volunteer mixers for teams.  The team also acted as an on-playa volunteer wrangler, recruiting early arrivers who needed an assignment and participants interested in volunteering during and post event.

Over time, Volunteer Team managers came and went, and Project infrastructure teams became more self-sufficient filling their volunteer roles. The Project’s focus on training and other support for volunteerism was supplanted by work on communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution, to name but a few. The Volunteer Team became the Volunteer Resource Team (VRT), and they focused primarily on recruitment through volunteer mixers year-round, and established the on-playa “V-Spot” at Playa Info, to help VCs find additional volunteers, and walk-ins find their participation role.

The Volunteer Squadron
In April of 2010, the proposal to establish a new cross-departmental volunteerism support group was made and given the green light. Collaboration is the key: VCs who had joined the Project more recently were looking for new tools and support, as well as the wisdom of their experienced peers.  The Volunteer Squadron has been reviewing and re-evaluating the old, and establishing new and improved approaches.  The team includes stakeholders from various Burning Man departments and volunteers invested in improvement of all things volunteerism at Burning Man.

Projects stewarded by the Volunteer Squadron include:

— Recording history and the experience of volunteering at Burning Man.

— Improving volunteer management tools and communications.

— Creating a feedback loop for volunteers.

— Developing a project wide tradition of mentorship.

— Review and evaluation of recruitment processes and tools.

— Volunteer orientation, on and off playa.

— Creation and project wide adoption of proper exit process for departing volunteers.

— Creation of a volunteer hub in BMHQ that serves the VCs, trainings, orientation, houses archives and library, and serves the larger community as a resource center for volunteerism.

The Volunteer Squadron meets on a monthly basis.

VC Training
On average, about 13 to 16 new Volunteer Coordinators are trained per year.  Many of these new VCs step into the role as it becomes available by a departing or transitioning VC.  A few are new roles created by a growing team and through a tradition of delegation. A Burning Man Volunteer Coordinator’s “job description” is a very long and detailed list of tasks and processes, and the most successful VCs are those who divide the responsibilities to share with willing and capable candidates. Given the size of many infrastructure teams, multiple VCs are needed to cover the workload. This approach lends itself to a tradition of inclusiveness, transparency, community empowerment and growth within the team.

Throughout the year, there are various training workshops organized to meet the needs of Volunteer Coordinators who, although volunteers, are regarded as staff members.

VC Round Tables
The Round Tables, started in 2009, are discussion forums meant as peer-to-peer information sharing for Volunteer Coordinators and Managers.  These sessions have proved to be successful on many levels:

— Allowing VCs to share processes and tools specifically developed for Burning Man projects and volunteers.

— Offer a support group.

— Offer an opportunity for brainstorming, sharing ideas and solutions.

— Offer a sense of community for VCs who usually operate within their own teams and not necessarily as a cohesive group.

They also function as a tool for Burning Man to learn about needed improvements, ideas for workshops, and an opportunity for constructive “venting”!

The Round Tables have been happening three times a year.  Long distance participation has proven a challenge as it limits spontaneous interaction, but various technologies are being explored in order to bridge this gap.

Volunteer Resource Team (VRT)
2010 saw the Volunteer Resource Team evolve and change in a number of ways, all positive, but challenging nonetheless. For example, our increased responsibilities on the playa were taxing to a number of our staff. As such, we are focusing on recruiting new members in 2011, while maintaining the amazing team and management we already have in place.

DMV Prom
2010 was a banner year in terms of inter-departmental cooperation and the DMV Prom is just one example of this trend. The Prom was co-hosted by the Volunteer Resource Team and the Department of Mutant Vehicles in a Burner-owned warehouse in Oakland. Our inaugural theme of “Under the Sea” was hilariously portrayed by the participants and a great time was had by all. You just had to beware of the “Curse of the Titanic Punch” which was said to give you “Neptune’s Revenge”.

The BBQ is an annual event that has been held in Golden Gate Park since 2002 and is the largest event produced by the Volunteer Resource Team. For this picnic, Burners are encouraged to bring their “virgins, newbies and dust-free friends” and introduce them to Burning Man. The 2010 BBQ had the largest attendance ever, with most departments participating. Rangers, Playa Info, BRAF, Greeters, Gate/Perimeter/Exodus, DMV, Cafe, Special Events, and the Department of Public Works [LINKS for all] all had booths at the picnic. These departments were there to answer questions, recruit new volunteers, represent their teams and mingle with staff old and new alike.

Participation from theme camps, musicians, dancers, and bands all added to the festivities. Several workshops were held. A few non-Burner family members visiting from the East Coast got a warm welcome by the Burning Man community. The grills were filled with delicious food all day long and Burners happily displayed the principles of ‘communal effort’ and ‘radical self-reliance’ as the potluck overflowed with people excitedly sharing their favorite dishes. As always, we left the park a cleaner place than when we got there.

The V-Spot
The V-Spot is the on-playa manifestation of the Volunteer Resource Team. Our veteran pre-event volunteer wrangler returned to Black Rock in 2010 to remind those arriving early that they were there to work, not to party. Our pre-event presence was made possible again by the hard work of DPW, as the shade structure we share with Playa Info  is one of the first public projects completed within Black Rock City. Our increased size and location within Center Camp at the Keyhole were again key components to our continued success. In this location the V-Spot was more visible and prominent than ever, because of this and our ongoing efforts to make our services known), we filled the largest number of volunteer opportunities we have ever recorded.

One major area of change in 2010 saw the Team begin to fill the role of Community Services ‘fluffers’. As with DPW, a ‘fluffer’ refers to a person or persons whose primary role is to look after other staff and make sure people have the tools they need to do their job. This has been an organic process for VRT and we did not plan on filling this need. However, it is obvious by now that Community Services needs additional assistance spanning multiple departments. It only seems natural that the Volunteer Resource Team would shift into this task, as we already work with nearly every department on playa and have extensive knowledge of cross-department infrastructure and operations. This role has lead to our own need for increased resources and facilities.

Our dedicated on-playa team staffed shifts at the V-Spot desk (this team is slightly different than the year-round one). Team members were quite busy facilitating volunteer placements, with the goal of offering top-notch information and assistance to the entire Burning Man community. As in 2009, VRT staff again scheduled ‘interviews’ with each department’s Volunteer Coordinator. Team management spent much of pre-event in meetings with staff so that we could get an idea of their volunteer needs ahead of time and draw up schedules. This streamlines the process of gathering information and allows the team to better plan for volunteer staffing.

Holiday Par-tay
Due to the popularity of last year’s ‘Hthankszaweenwas’ theme we decided to do it once more with “MAS Hthankszaweenmas”. This mash-up party of the holiday season was again held in November, allowing remote staff in town for debrief meetings to attend. We again consolidated our end-of-year appreciation events with an expanded budget to produce one kick-ass party! As with previous years, Santaland (where participants could have their picture taken with Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick), the white elephant gift exchange, Your Favorite Holiday Costume Contest and The Cookie Potluck were popular fixtures of this event. Gate staff volunteered to be Greeters. Burner performers, musicians and entertainers added to the festive atmosphere. This year, we held a toy drive for the SFFD, which was hugely successful.

Final Thoughts
As many of the teams have grown and made efforts to become more self-reliant, walk-in participation opportunities during the event have decreased. This has led to disappointment and confusion for participants who have in the past made spontaneous volunteering for a chosen team part of their Burning Man ritual.

This leads to the question: is absolute self-reliance counterproductive to Burning Man’s spirit of participation? In other words, as we grow more efficient, we may be at risk of exclusivity!  After this year’s observation of this phenomenon, some teams are reconsidering their strategy to make room for impromptu participation.

Submitted by,
Termeh Yeghiazarian and Corey A. Christopher