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.