Phoenix-Based Comic Con Now Makes People Pay To Be Volunteers

Phoenix-Based Comic Con Now Makes People Pay To Be Volunteers

Arizona’s largest comic convention has closed the doors to volunteers — except for those who are willing to pay for the privilege.

Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Phoenix Comicon and its parent company Square Egg Entertainment have partnered up with Blue Ribbon Army, a fan club-turned-social group, which registered as a non-profit this year. From now on, anyone wanting to volunteer as a staff member at Phoenix Comicon will have to become a paid member of Blue Ribbon Army, with memberships starting at $US20+ ($28) ($28) per year. Phoenix Comicon’s organisation also laid off three directors, including one who’d worked there since 2007, as part of the change.

Matthew Solberg, Convention Director of Phoenix Comicon, told previous staffers in an email that they’re implementing the new system because more and more volunteers were showing up to collect badges without doing the work, and there was no way to prevent it from happening again “under the existing structure.”

Phoenix Comicon has surged in popularity over the past decade, becoming one of the top comic conventions in the country in a pretty short amount of time. When it started back in 2002, about 400 people paid $US3 ($4) to get in. In 2016, over 100,000 attended. Granted, such an attendance boom requires changes to volunteer structures; especially if, as Solberg claimed, dozens or more staff members weren’t doing their assigned work. However, it’s strange that their best solution was to make people pay to be on the list, when larger conventions like San Diego Comic-Con still have volunteer staffs.

There aren’t a lot of organisations in the U.S. that charge volunteers, but they do exist. However, most of them are non-profits themselves, and do so in order to keep the doors open. In 2011, the Kansas Humane Society started charging a $US15 ($21) membership fee for volunteers, but it’s one-time only and isn’t required for current members or children under 18. Plus, it’s a risky move. Charging volunteers has been shown to discourage more people from signing up and can reduce their satisfaction in helping, especially younger people.

Blue Ribbon Army’s booth at Phoenix Comicon / Credit: Facebook Phoenix Comicon is not a charity organisation, but Blue Ribbon Army is the one receiving the funds, and it is a non-profit. However, it’s still not clear what exactly the fees are going toward, apart from a blanket statement about off-setting the cost of events and merchandise. In addition, previous volunteers don’t get an exemption, nor is there an alternate route for those who can’t afford the annual $US20+ ($28) ($28) fee. That might not seem like a lot of money, but Arizona has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation — especially in Phoenix, where almost one of every six people live at or below the poverty line.

The biggest problem of all is membership doesn’t even guarantee a volunteer position, only a spot on the list.

Phoenix Comicon’s directors and managers will be responsible for selecting volunteers from the list provided by Blue Ribbon Army. The con is hoping for a staff of 1,300 at 2017’s event in May, and then it wants to reduce to 950 volunteers by 2018. That means at least 400 people who volunteer in 2017 might not get the chance to next time around, even if they have paid for it. If that’s the case, might as well pay $US55 ($76) for an event pass, or $US20+ ($28) ($28)+ for single-day tickets, instead of paying to enter a lottery.

We reached out to Blue Ribbon Army and Square Egg Entertainment with some additional questions, and we’ll let you know when we hear more.

This story originally appeared on Gizmodo Australia.

[Arizona Republic]


  • Not really sure how this is a problem (yet ). Came here to wave the torch and pitchfork, but it seems like they simply had a problem getting quality volunteers, and were flooded with too many applications. People were using it as a free ride.

    The weirdest sentence in this article is this:
    In addition, previous volunteers don’t get an exemption, nor is there an alternate route for those who can’t afford the annual $US20+ ($28) ($28) fee. That might not seem like a lot of money, but Arizona has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation…

    So… don’t volunteer? This line betrays the intention behind volunteering.
    You can’t afford to help out? Then don’t. They don’t need the extra help! They’re all good!

    People. Volunteering is NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s about the people you’re helping.
    What this complaint signals to me, is that people were feeling entitled to something more than just helping someone out.

    It seems as ridiculous as someone force-feeding a homeless person who’s full and doesn’t want to eat any more today. “LET ME FEED YOU, YOU UNGRATEFUL SHIT! I’M A GOOD PERSON DAMMIT!”

    Seems to me that the underlying complaint is some people couldn’t really afford to go to the ‘con, and only want to use volunteering as their way in.

    • Not really sure how this is a problem

      To me the problem is an American company (and yes, they are a company who makes a profit) saying “Pay us to have the privilege of working for us”. These people are doing actual, tangible work that has a monetary value to the company, and now they’re asking people to pay the company just to be able to do it. That just seems massively exploitative.

      • No, the BRA is a non-for-profit. Which means legally, those membership funds are used to cover organizational expenses for members. And it is MEMBERSHIP, which confers various other benefits, not just ‘pay to go to the con’.

        This actually really, really shits me. It’s like the default assumption that a Kickstarter is a pre-order, when it’s really, really not. It’s an ‘investment’ which is more essentially a donation which MAY yield a finished product, but just as likely may not, with no recourse for the unlucky donor. Similarly, membership to the staffing non-profit is not a ‘cheap ticket’, it’s membership to a club, which happens to staff a convention.

        This is ass-about-backwards thinking which shits me to no end.

        Also, it’s hardly exploitative when it’s something that so many people are falling over themselves to do for free that they’ve had to include barriers and filters, and even membership to the BRA doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up volunteering.

        Fact is this: people who are unhappy about not being able to volunteer for something that they are not needed for are clearly only in it for themselves.

  • You might also find that that $18 or so is going towards insurance as well. That being said, I am sick to fucking death of for profit organisations running events with volunteers rather than paying people.

    • Enh, I don’t mind it. Wages are an enormous cost – moreso here in Australia than the US. But even there, many companies’ largest overheads are actually their people.

      In the case of a con like PAX, it’d probably double the price of a ticket (at least), if you had to pay all the volunteers.
      That said, it’s not like PAX is a huge revenue-raising event. It’s something that people wanted to happen for their own social enjoyment, and having a large organization handle it allows it to occur to such a high level of quality on such a large scale.

      Now, EB Expo… that’s a different story.

  • Volunteer coordinator for a large Australian based gaming event here. If their excuse is ‘too many volunteers are taking badges and not doing the work’ then the problem is on their end, not the volunteers. My event used to charge volunteers for a weekend ticket and we would then refund them once the weekend was over (and they were marked off as having done their work).

    In the end we actually scrapped that system and just gave them free tickets because we realised that our volunteers didn’t care about the free ticket, they were doing it because they loved our event and wanted to be a part of it. We have something like 95% of all volunteers successfully completing their shifts (out of roughly 250 – 300 volunteers).

    • Sounds to me like it’s not so much the event coordinators fault/problem, so much as a function of the local demographics.

      …Arizona has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation — especially in Phoenix, where almost one of every six people live at or below the poverty line.

      It’s a poor area, and a large number of people are obviously seeing volunteering as their way to a free ticket, rather than a way to pitch in as part of their community. This in turn is obviously distorting the organizers’ pool of actually useful volunteers to the point that they feel that they’ve had to do something about it. They WERE doing what you are doing, and it clearly wasn’t working for them. So they’ve had to change. That’s a pretty sensible thing to do.

      It’s not really a volunteers ‘problem’ if they don’t want to be part of the obviously large-enough not-for-profit group/community that’s contracted to handle the staffing. It’s only a ‘problem’ if they were only using volunteering as a way to get a free ticket and their primary concern is the ticket.

      I don’t really see anything for anyone to complain about, here. Seems like the only people who have a valid complaint are the organizers, and they’ve done something about it.

      • But there are plenty of things that can be done to ween out those who are only in it for a free ticket. For instance, we organise training sessions in the weeks before hand that are mandatory. We give them multiple dates to chose from but they only have to attend one, and if they don’t their name gets removed from the list and they get no free pass. That alone gets rid of about 80 or so people, because if they have no intention of actually volunteering they’re not going to give up 3-4 hours of their Saturday prior to the event to come to a training session.

        On top of that we also organise an amazing (and exclusive) after party for the volunteers with free drinks, and if our records show they havn’t completed their shifts (we have a really solid sign in and sign out system as well) then they don’t get entry.

        We do also have some other methods as well to increase volunteer retention that are a bit more complicated but all of these small things mean that we get around 95% of volunteers actually showing up to their shifts and as a result, volunteers runs like clockwork. While I understand the poverty argument, their are ways to ween out those who aren’t legitimate.

        • See, that sounds like a whole lot of things that you’re willing to do which sound a lot more involved, time-consuming, and intensive than simply handing things over to a volunteer group who manage themselves – effectively subcontracting that aspect and not having to deal with it. Which appears to be exactly what they’ve done with the Blue Ribbon Army.

          These are different ways of achieving the same result, but at the end of the day, what I’m getting at is I don’t see what the problem is, other than some folks who wanted to volunteer for a free ticket not being able to get it ‘free’. There doesn’t appear to be any real down-side.

    • Yeah that’s what I was thinking merely have it be a deposit based system.

      To be a volunteer you outlay as much as a ticket would have cost, are assigned your tasks for the con. Upon completion of all tasks you are eligible for a full refund.

      You could even do it by instalment so if they hit their schedule on Friday and Saturday but flaked on Sunday. They get the payment equivalent to the days that were fully worked.

      That way if someone gets the con-pox, or parties to hard one night they don’t lose the entire amount because they were unable to walk in straight lines come morning.

      Should basically eliminate the issue entirely

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