Profit Vs. Purpose at Burning Man

As the arts festival has grown, it has become a symbol of the battle between commercialism and ideas.

Depending on whom you ask, the Burning Man arts festival, which starts this week in the middle of the Nevada desert, is either a communal event dedicated to inclusiveness, non-commercialism, collaboration, social responsibility and purpose, or an environmentally-destructive playground for white billionaires with no authenticity.

As the festival has grown from a few thousand attendees and a less than $50 fee in the mid-1990s to the more than 70,000 people who spent a minimum of $425 to attend this year, it has come to symbolize for many the tug-of-war between commercialism and purpose. “People want to live their values, and they have a heightened level of awareness about them being co-opted,” says Kate Shattuck, co-leader of Korn Ferry’s impact investing practice.

For example, burners—as traditional festival attendees are known—have objected to the private planes, luxury accommodations, and exclusive parties held by CEOs, hedge fund managers, professional athletes and other wealthy people. According to the burners, these activities violate the festival’s principles of civic responsibility, radical self-reliance, and communal effort. The festival organizers disagree, however, saying that allowing the rich to participate adheres to the festival’s tenet of radical inclusion.

While charges of selling out are particularly acute in the creative community, organizations of all stripes are increasingly dealing with consumers and employees who place greater emphasis on values and purpose than money. Greater access to information and social media have sparked a push among consumers for transparency and accountability in how the products they buy are made, what policies the brand supports, and more. “Organizations can’t fake their values with a tent or sponsorship anymore,” says Shattuck. If firms don’t have a sustainable supply chain, equal pay practices, a commitment to diversity, or protect the environment then people will find out and tell others, Shattuck says. Put another way, values and purpose can’t be a separate program within a company, but rather must be integrated into everything the organization does.

Whether it’s an arts festival such as Burning Man or a company scaling up for growth, balancing profit with purpose ultimately comes down to the commitment of the leaders in charge. Of Burning Man, Shattuck says, “People want authenticity at work and at play, and whether the festival is authentic or not is to be answered by the folks that go.”