By Evan Steiner and Jed Emerson

We recently returned from a week in the desert at this year's Burning Man festival. It was a profound journey, something we will remember for the rest of our lives. Burning Man is a unique and fascinating place. The breadth and scale of it is quite extraordinary, something that can only be experienced to comprehend. We met many incredible people, experienced moving art projects, danced until the early morning, and genuinely had a really amazing time. 

We camped with IDEATE, a Burning Man camp that explores how to promote Burning Man principles in the world. They are also very focused on Buckminster Fuller's concept of how to make the world work for 100% of humanity. IDEATE does this by accommodating many first time "bur-gin" burners, hosting a speaker series focused on these topics, building fun and experiential projects that teach living systems thinking, such as the Bucky Ball Pit, and supporting projects that exemplify Burning Man principles in the real world. IDEATE brings together a fantastic group of people from all over the globe, each of which are dedicated to making the world a better place in their own unique way. The camp included social entrepreneurs, environmentalists, technologists, futurists, impact investors, bad-ass changemakers, and more. 

This year IDEATE, in partnership with Nexus Global Youth Summit, brought a delegation of impact investors from Nexus to Burning Man, to stay with IDEATE, and host a day of speakers and conversations exploring the relationship between impact investing and Burning Man principles. The Nexus crew had a spectacular time on the playa, and the Impact Investing / New Economy speaker sessions were well attended and filled with profound insights, great conversations, and new connections. 

The first session, "Burn Your Dollar," led by Jed Emerson (Blended Value and Impact Assets) and Abigail Noble (The Impact), was a primer on impact investing including its history, key concepts, and main players. It also explored the overlap between Burning Man and impact investing principles and how each can inform one another. Over recent years, impact investing has moved from a fringe concept toward mainstream adoption and practice by asset owners big and small. Emerson spoke about the evolution of both thinking and practice of creating blended value through impact investing, while Noble reflected on its future and implications for those working to integrate their values with sustainable investment practice.  

The second session, "A Burning Man Investment Fund," was led by Evan Steiner (The Whole Person Economy), Tharald Nustad (a Norwegian impact investor and active member of the international venture investor network, Toniic), and Pascale Deau (Sonen Capital) Our discussion examined the resonance between Burning Man principles and impact investing practices. The session explored questions such as what would be needed for a fund to invest in projects exemplifying Burning Man principles? What are the barriers, such as return profile and exit strategy, that makes this approach difficult? What are the kinds of investment products and strategies, such as Donor Advised Funds, that could help overcome those barriers? At the end of the session we welcomed a guest speaker from Burning Man, Bear Kittay, who recently helped lead the organization’s acquisition of Fly Ranch, a land and hot springs purchased by Burning Man (a nonprofit entity) and located adjacent to where the annual event takes place. Bear shared his experience in being a part of the team that closed the deal, as well as offering his perspective on investing with a Burning Man lens.

The third session was based on The Whole Person Economy, an initiative that explores economics through the lens of ethics, values, spirituality, and religion. Evan facilitated a conversation between a dynamic group of thought leaders and practitioners including Charles Eisenstein (Author and Speaker), David McConnville (Buckminster Fuller Institute), Gopi Kallayil (Google), David Kittay (Professor in Buddhishm at Columbia University), and Jeff Leifer (Circadian Media Lab). The high level conversation touched on the framing, mindsets, culture, and societal structures needed in order for the world to work for 100% of humanity. It was inspiring to have so many brilliant minds all together in the same place, something Burning Man helps to provide. 

Another big highlight of the burn was having Grover Norquist come to IDEATE and participate in a facilitated conversation between him and our campmates. Grover is a staunch libertarian, and he a significant influencer within the Republican Party, especially as it relates to tax policy—and his campaign to have leading politicians sign a “no new taxes” pledge. While it may seem odd to some, he also comes to Burning Man every year.

Needless to say, there were many people in camp who dislike what Grover stands for and believe he has caused a lot of the gridlock in Congress. However, one of the Burning Man principles is the concept of Radical Inclusivity, which emphasizes the importance of welcoming all people and perspectives into the Burning Man community. After all, it is always beneficial to understand where people are coming from, even if you staunchly disagree with them. Our discussion with Grover was an engaging conversation, lasting several hours and covering a host of topics.  To the surprise of some, there were areas of common ground (individual liberty, social justice and prison reform, among them). The conversation was engaging, provocative and punctuated by several sand storms that added to the surreal nature of discussing what he referred to as “center right” politics in what many assume is a “center left” gathering[JE1] . Grover said he had a great time too and would be happy to come back again next year. 

As yet one more place for impact investors and social entrepreneurs to connect, Burning Man presents an interesting and relevant lens through which to view our work. We are excited about where this conversation might take us and look forward to sharing more posts and content as we continue to explore these ideas and intersects between the Burning Man Community and the world of impact investing.

Evan Steiner may be reached at evanste@gmail.com for additional information regarding future Burning Impact events.

 

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