SantaCon’s supposed charity funds going to Burning Man, cryptocurrency: report

SantaCon has been giving Big Apple charities little more than a lump of coal from its big bag of event cash, a new report says.

The annual bar crawl, which brought some 30,000 tipsy Kris Kringles to New York City on Saturday, has in the past pointed to its billing as a “charitable, non-commercial” event to deflect criticism from drunken brawls and lewd behavior.

But a big chunk of the cash raised by the tax-exempt organization has actually gone to bankroll Burning Man festivities and on cryptocurrency, Gothamist reported last week.

The group behind the international event — which is planning 48 events in other locales over the next few weeks — has given less than a fifth of the $1.4 million it raised between 2014 and 2022 to registered charities, the report said.

More than a third of the funds were directed towards groups or individuals that promote activities and goods like hula hooping, dance parades and free costumes at the annual Burning Man art festival in the Nevada desert, according to the outlet’s analysis of tax documents.

Soren Christian conducts the Burlesque Band of San Francisco as they perform tunes during SantaCon at Union Square on Saturday. A Gothamist report published a day prior detailed how SantaCon’s parent company played fast and loose with its charitable donations. AP

SantaCon is organized by a 501 (c)( 3) called Participatory Safety, Inc., whose stated mission is to “Collaborate, create, interact and participate by bring art, arts events and arts education to underserved communities,” according to its website.

Those goals appear to be at odds with SantaCon’s promise to split the proceeds of its $15 tickets in New York City “between the various charities listed on this page (City Harvest, Materials for the Arts, HeadCount, Food-4-Thought), as well as local neighborhood charities along Santa’s route.”

SantaCon’s website brags that it had “raised over 1.1 Million dollars [sic] for charitable causes!” over the past decade.

But according to Gothamist, more than $832,000, or 59% of the group’s proceeds, were spent on operating costs during the eight-year span ending in 2022.

In 2018, it reportedly lost $17,498 in crypto investments.

The for-profit group Spectaculum Productions, LLC, which produced a documentary film entitled “At Your Cervix” about pelvic exams performed on non-consenting patients, received $66,340 in SantaCon funds, making it the group’s largest individual beneficent, according to the report.

“To the extent that they’re doing something charitable, it’s not what people think it is,” Brian Mittendorf, the H.P. Wolfe chair in accounting at Ohio State University, told Gothamist.

“The money going to their targeted charities is minuscule as a percentage of their budget.”

Neither SantaCon nor Participatory Safety, Inc. responded to a request for an interview from The Post Monday.

The event was turned into a charitable organization after the NYPD asked promoters to crack down on drunken fighting, as seen here in 2016. J.C. Rice

However, Participatory Safety founder and director Stefan Pildes staunchly defended to Gothamist the need for the group to spend money on temporary workers, street closure permits, contracts, vehicles, entertainment and office space and administrative fees.

“It’s not a small undertaking,” Pildes told the outlet of SantaCon, while confirming that funds the group labels as charitable grants and business expenses have been directed to Burning Man projects.

“Our mission is to bring more art out into the world,” he added.

“I want to continue to see more creative outlets and opportunities and more people in costume and more cheer being spread.”

Revelers dressed as holiday characters participate in the annual SantaCon pub crawl on December 9. Getty Images
The annual Santacon pub crawl is a tradition where all the participants have to dress in a Christmas themed costume.
Two people wearing Grinch costumes celebrate SantaCon. Jimin Kim/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

In 2018, the group spent $60,000 to reserve a Manhattan event space for “Decom 2018,” a post-Burning Man party, an expense that Pildes said was a loan that was repaid with zero interest, Gothamist reported.

The ties between Burning Man and SantaCon date back to the 1980s, when a group called Cacophony Society organized cultural pranks in San Francisco, according to the report.

One member of that outfit started the Burning Man festival in 1990, and its first theme was Christmas in the desert.

That idea blossomed into a Santa flash-mob in San Francisco in 1994, the first SantaCon.

By the latter half of the decade, SantaCon had come to New York and was organized in part by Pildes, an East Village native who soon incorporated a canned food and toy drive.

“It was a much smaller event, and there was no social media,” he said.

“We all wanted to feel like we had done some charitable giving before we went and had our holiday celebration. And then the event grew beyond our social circle and grew to include people that weren’t as interested in the creative element of it.”

Much of the money raised by SantaCon in NYC is funneled to groups tied to Nevada’s Burning Man festival, the report explained. AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, Pildes said he founded Participatory Safety when asked by the NYPD to sober up SantaCon following high-profile drunken melees.

“We thought the best way to rein it in was to turn it into a charity,” he said, without providing specifics to Gothamist.

Participatory Safety, Inc. had typically not attributed spending to fundraising expenses, keeping the non-profit’s “fundraising efficiency ratio” low and giving the impression it spends heavily on charities, analysts told Gothamist.

During the pandemic, it teamed up with Queens bar The Deep End to raise money for meals for frontline worker in an initiative dubbed Helping Hearts, according to the article.

Donors’ funds flowed through Participatory Safety to the bar so they received a charitable tax deduction, Pildes and the bar owner told the outlet.

The Deep End is the business name of Jungo Road, LLC, named after the dirt path that leads to Burning Man in Nevada’s isolated Black Rock Desert.

One non-profit regulation expert told Gothamist Participatory Safety did not appear to be breaking any laws, based on the publicly available information.

“Charities play fast and loose with how they account these things all the time,” said Lloyd Mayer, a Notre Dame University Law School professor.

“Regardless of what they want to label it, throwing the party is not a charitable activity,” said Mayer.

“It’s great to go to this party, right? But don’t pat yourself on the back that you’re helping out the Girl Scouts.”

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