Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

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Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby joshuaj » Fri Jan 06, 2012 11:07 pm

Mainly to satisfy my own curiosity, I posted on ManyEyes a visualization of the financial data from the 2006-2010 Afterburn reports. Click the thumbnail to see it.

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The size of each box, naturally, represents the size of the expenditure in the selected year (by default, 2010). The color of the box indicates how that expense compares to some other year: by default, 2009. You can choose which years to compare with the pop-up menus below the chart. You can also zoom in on one of the three broad categories of expenditures by right-clicking.

The thing that really jumps out to me is that payroll and outside services are the biggest parts of the cost - together almost half the total price - and that payroll doubled from 2009 to 2010 to a magnificent $7 million. It seems (to a largely uninformed outsider) like the best thing Burning Man could do to keep ticket prices in check would be if they could find a way to get more volunteers -- not just at the event, but year-round.

The recent creation of the non-profit Burning Man Project might help encourage volunteers, as well as reduce the company's taxes, which are a decent chunk of the price as well. But mostly, I hope the change of organizational structure encourages a new way of thinking about how to run such a community-driven event. (Could Burning Man's website be written and managed by a team of volunteers? Could some portion of legal research and aid be volunteered by lawyer burners? If the organization dumped its raw financial data online for all to see, could some curious geeks do much of their accounting for them? In short, how could greater transparency, and adoption of the 10 principals by the organization itself, lead to lower costs?)
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Eric » Sat Jan 07, 2012 1:05 am

joshuaj wrote:The recent creation of the non-profit Burning Man Project might help encourage volunteers, as well as reduce the company's taxes, which are a decent chunk of the price as well. But mostly, I hope the change of organizational structure encourages a new way of thinking about how to run such a community-driven event.


The Burning Man Project does not take control of the event for about 5 years, until then it's run under the same LLC that's been running it since '96 (or there-about). I don't have any knowledge about the exact reason for the bump in payroll, but since they're training people to take over the event while still running it with the current members there is probably some overlap.

Plenty of people volunteer to keep Burning Man running (the ePlaya Mods, myself included, among them), but to expect everyone to do it as volunteers is ludicrous at best- it's not the way the real world works. Think about it- could you do a 40+ hour a week job, 50(ish) weeks a year for no pay? How are you going to cover rent, food, bills...?

As an example: you might be able to get volunteer legal assistance occasionally, but when you're running an event that has over 50,000 participants in a hostile environment while dealing with federal, state, city & county attorneys as well as needing attorneys to protect "the brand" and deal with other issues... yeah. Good luck finding a volunteer who would take that workload for free (I've both worked for law firms & been represented pro bono by a law firm at one point, law firms do pro bono as "good works", not as a permanent job)

If you want to see change in the way the LLC does things, volunteer for them & work to make change happen. Anyone can talk about it.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby theCryptofishist » Sat Jan 07, 2012 11:03 am

joshuaj wrote:If the organization dumped its raw financial data online for all to see, could some curious geeks do much of their accounting for them?

Wow. And how does anyone decide which curious geeks do it right and which do it wrong? It's easier to use a combination of direct discussion, a look at past performance, and talking to people who are familiar with the geek's work in the past. Sort of like a job interview with reference checks.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby trilobyte » Sat Jan 07, 2012 11:50 am

I can't imagine a universe where crowd-sourcing your business accounting would be a good idea.

I don't have a problem with the way they choose to run their business (both the current LLC and the emerging BM Project). And I don't see a problem with them having full time, part time, or seasonal paid staff. I'm grateful to those who volunteer (and am happy to be able to volunteer myself), but don't think the company should have some obligation or requirement to only use volunteer help if they feel the organization would be better served a different way.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Elderberry » Sat Jan 07, 2012 12:50 pm

I am really sick and tired of the constant rehash of BMORG and it's finances. It's really none of anybody's business. It's novbody's business what they pay themselves, what they charge for tickets nor how they decide to spend the proceeds of ticket sales. You either can afford to buy a ticket and go, or you can't. You either choose to go or you choose not to go, but this wining and complaining and analyzing BMORG finances is a rediculous exercise in ridiculousness.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Sassy Britches » Sat Jan 07, 2012 2:12 pm

I'd echo the last comments, and also point out that payroll is the largest expense for just about every organization, whether for or not for profit. Don't expect the payroll to go down once the transition to non profit is complete.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby joshuaj » Sat Jan 07, 2012 9:20 pm

jkisha wrote:I am really sick and tired of the constant rehash of BMORG and it's finances. It's really none of anybody's business. It's novbody's business what they pay themselves, what they charge for tickets nor how they decide to spend the proceeds of ticket sales. You either can afford to buy a ticket and go, or you can't. You either choose to go or you choose not to go, but this wining and complaining and analyzing BMORG finances is a rediculous exercise in ridiculousness.


I think that's very well said, and I agree completely with all of it.

Having said that, I think it completely misses the point.

Burning Man chooses to take a "None of your business" approach to their business operations. That's their choice, and they have every right to do so. And we also have every right to be disappointed by it. I'm constantly disappointed when businesses and nonprofits make decisions that turn out to hurt their goals and their customers and their own bottom lines. Everyone loses. It sucks. It's normal and healthy to dislike that, and yes, even to discuss it. (Not to whine about it, though. Please, no more whining!)

The price to attend Burning Man is now more than a week's salary for many attendees. That's a lot of money. if this trend continues, the demographics of the event might start to change fundamentally. I don't want to see the event fail because the easiest way to run it turns out too late to have been unsustainable.

Some of the regionals are run much more openly and transparently. I personally think that this structure is much more in keeping with Burning Man's 10 principles. Yes, I'd like to see Burning Man adopt the principles it's trying to promote, because I believe in those principles, and I think they can't hurt and just might happen to actually help.

(PS: I was very tempted to simply respond: "You can either choose to read the discussions about Burning Man's finances or not, but your wining and complaining about other people's hobbies is a rediculous exercise in ridiculousness." I didn't, though, because I really do want to start an actual discussion, not a flame war :) )
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby joshuaj » Sat Jan 07, 2012 10:09 pm

trilobyte wrote:I can't imagine a universe where crowd-sourcing your business accounting would be a good idea.


I suggest reading up on the world of open-source software. It's truly incredible how some groups have managed to crowd-source difficult, technical, quantitative tasks.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Burning Man fire all their employees and hope for the best. That would be absurd. But consider this thought experiment: Suppose they switched to a "default public" model: all internal discussions, all emails and memos and data about running Burning Man, were automatically posted online for anyone who was curious. No normal business would do this, because it gives their competitors a huge advantage, knowing exactly what's going on. But Burning Man doesn't have competitors in that sense. So, is there any downside? It's potentially embarrassing, of course -- they'd have to admit to any embarrassing mistakes, to policies that didn't work out the way they planned, that normally they'd just sweep under the rug and hope nobody found out. But that's not going to kill Burning Man... at worst, it helps keep them honest, and even the best of us can use a little pressure to help keep us honest :)

So, suppose they do this. Perhaps nothing happens. That'd be too bad, but it wouldn't really cost them anything to try... it's pretty cheap to do.

But perhaps some interesting people take notice. They mention a difficult problem, and someone sends them an insightful solution that they hadn't thought of. They post a bunch of data, and someone else mines it for a pattern they hadn't noticed. They post a legal question, and a law student studying just that issue gives them a detailed answer before they even get around to calling their lawyers. Over time, the organization can start to rely more and more on this community, as they find out exactly what they can and can't get reliably from it; but the community is always outside. The core group, the paid Burning Man employees, are ultimately running everything themselves; they have the final say in everything, but they're able to work far more efficiently and intelligently because of all this external support.

This is exactly how many of the most successful open-source software projects work: A core group of paid developers owns and takes full responsibility for the project, and sees to it that everything that needs to be done gets done; but they work with incredible efficiency due to the huge community of people who use and rely on their software, or believe in their mission, or are trying to get extra credit in school, or whatever reason they might have to help out.

This is also, ultimately, how Burning Man already works to some extent - most of the Burning Man event is built by the community, and pretty seamlessly integrates into the comparatively small (but critically important) portion of the experience built by Black Rock City LLC. It works really well. What's the harm in trying it on a larger scale?
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby knowmad » Sat Jan 07, 2012 11:56 pm

I aggree 100% joshuj.
An actual discussion about this is needed. And there are alot of examples of crowd sourced transparency driven concerns out there. In this thread we already see a common response pattern forming. Many participants of the event are going to be spectators and critics. And asking tough questions like "why has there been such a huge payroll increase? Is that the cheepest way X can be done? Where did the money go?" will bring up the lowest comman base response. It is true in politics; from the state to the PTA. It is the norm in the Corp. World. And most infuriatting when it involves things people are passionate about.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Lord Of Ruin » Thu Jan 12, 2012 2:10 pm

Savanah and Joshuaj

Not sure how long you lurked, but it looks like you're both fairly recent EPlaya joiners. I think the sentiment you're seeing is because this sort of "they're doing it wrong" is often rehashed up here. Similar "there must be a better way" memes emerge...and then die out. So some eplayans are experiencing lingering "afterburn report rage" fatigue.

Before someone goes off and decides to solve a problem, they should probably determine that there IS a problem. Rather than cite the payroll cost increase year over year, why not compare payroll costs to other events of this type. I work for a number of festival events every year...some in volunteer capacity, some paid. I also volunteer year-round for the BMORG in one department that has a high number of volunteers during the event (high three figures) in a sort of management-y/leader-y capacity. A tiny fraction of those people are paid (~4% or so), are paid only for the 3-4 weeks they're out there, and if it's figured out on an hourly basis just for the time on playa, would amount to less than $1 per hour. The paid employees are done so largely to get professional skills (think ESD, some DPW, etc) or to ensure continuity in leadership positions. There's a threshold that you must maintain of experienced to rookie in order to keep the event working. And you can fiddle with incentives on the experienced people, but at the end money ends up coming into it. So the equation is something like for every one FTE in payroll, you're getting something like 25 full time workers. YMMV.

Another point...keep in mind that of the ~50k attendees, about 5000 don't really give a shit about the event really. They are being paid to do a job out there, and it's an interesting place to do it for sure. But remove the money and they're not going. They don't really care about the 10 principles; they're just the rules of the particular gig for them. This includes many of the vendors, cops, DPW, ESD, etc.

It really does help to get in there with a department and put in a couple years, especially year round in positions of responsibility. You get insight into how the whole machine works, what the costs are, where the money is being spent, etc. In many ways, the Org itself has operated on a shoestring as a corporation. They have many things/services now that any company would have had long ago. In some part, you'll see that catch-up reflected in that payroll number as well.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby joshuaj » Thu Jan 12, 2012 4:21 pm

When I started this thread, my goal was simply to take the financial information that BRC LLC publishes and make that data more accessible. The data is published, not because the organization has any legal requirement to do so, but apparently because they feel it's a good thing to do. My goal was to help out by giving people a bit more insight into what that data actually means, because a list of numbers can be pretty hard to comprehend in and of itself. I certainly didn't expect this to be controversial at all.

Lord Of Ruin wrote:Before someone goes off and decides to solve a problem, they should probably determine that there IS a problem.


Definitely. I tried not to say anything that might be interpreted as a suggestion that the high payroll costs were "a problem." I want to make it clear that I have absolutely no idea why payroll costs doubled in a year when attendance only increased by 15%, but I would bet that there was a very good reason for it.

I do, personally, consider the high and rising ticket prices to be a problem. This is a matter of opinion, though I know many people share this particular opinion. I also know that I don't have enough information to solve this problem, but I hope there are some people on this forum with more insight than I have. Hence my first post: share the raw data in an accessible form; ask some tough questions without clear answers; then sit back and watch what I hoped would be something resembling a discussion.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Bob » Sat Jan 14, 2012 10:16 am

Burning Man has always had just a small handful of people determining whence the event money comes and goes. Now you want a small handful of computer-enabled hipster beancounters lacking institutional memory to determine First Camp's firewood budget. Forgive me for not being thrilled.
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Re: Interactive chart of AfterBurn financial reports

Postby Mojojita » Mon Jan 16, 2012 3:01 pm

I don't consider the ticket prices to be a "problem", nor do I consider them to be particularly high considering the infrastructure that is necessary to turn such a blank slate into a city and keep it running for a week. I am often surprised at the numbers of people who believe themselves entitled to buy a ticket they can afford - why is it that people who would never consider blowing money on other vacations often are angry at what they have to spend to get in the gate at Burning Man?

On the subject of volunteers, I am constantly impressed with the huge amount of volunteer hours spent on this festival, and the level of dedication and professionalism among the volunteer departments.

Having been a participant for the last 14 years, and having watched the growing pains between providing for 25k people to the numbers we have now makes me NOT feel the need to play armchair quarterback. This is not a municipality or a governmental entity that takes in taxpayer funds in order to operate but instead is much more a big private party. I am usually the first in line to question authority - particularly when it concerns the government, but frankly, I find it more than generous and forthcoming for the Burning Man organization to make their financial records public in the first place.
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