Arizona’s largest comic convention has closed the doors to volunteers—except for those who are willing to pay for the privilege.
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 $20 per year. Phoenix Comicon’s organization 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 $3 each to get in. In 2016, over 100,000 visitors 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 organizations 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 $15 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.
Phoenix Comicon is not a charity organization, but Blue Ribbon Army (which started as an unofficial fan club in 2013) is a certified non-profit. The fees will reportedly go to covering the cost of events and merchandise. Phoenix Comicon did explain those expenses to io9 in more detail, including what events Blue Ribbon Army has in the works for 2017. However, it’s all still hypothetical at this point, as no budget has been presented.
Previous volunteers don’t get an exemption to the membership mandate. Phoenix Comicon marketing manager Kristin Rowan told io9 that current staff members can apply for the jobs they want before joining Blue Ribbon Army, with top priority, but they’ll still have to join the group before actually getting those jobs.
In addition, the alternate route for those who can’t afford the annual $20 fee is pretty slim. Rowan said those who can’t afford membership can apply for a scholarship, but there doesn’t look to be any information on the site about that yet. The $20 fee 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.
However, the biggest problem of all is membership doesn’t even guarantee a volunteer position, only a spot on the list. And if current staff members get top priority for slots next year, that could limit the number of new people who can get volunteer positions—even if they’ve paid for the opportunity.
Phoenix Comicon’s directors and managers will be responsible for selecting volunteers from the list provided by Blue Ribbon Army. Solberg and Joe Boudrie, director of programming at Phoenix Comicon, will also serve on Blue Ribbon Army’s board. 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. If that’s the case, might as well fork over $55 for an event pass, or $20+ for single-day tickets, instead of paying to enter a lottery.
We reached out to Blue Ribbon Army with some additional questions, and we’ll let you know when we hear more.
Update: Anabel Martinez, a former director at Phoenix Comicon, says she was banned from the convention and Blue Ribbon Army’s Facebook group for speaking out against the volunteer changes. Solberg confirmed her ban in a statement to Bleeding Cool, but said it was because she was being “vindictive” against him and Phoenix Comicon online.
Update 5:30pm: Added response from Phoenix Comicon.
Update 11:00am: It looks like Blue Ribbon Army has updated their membership from “opportunity to apply for staff positions” to “opportunity to accept staff positions,” suggesting people can apply for volunteer positions before getting a membership. However, neither Phoenix Comicon nor Blue Ribbon Army appear to have volunteer applications on their websites at this time.