Phoenix Comicon’s Volunteer Positions Created Controversy, 2017 Convention Non-Profit Program Now Being Reconsidered

The Phoenix Comicon 2017 event has been a source of controversy with its new “pay to volunteer” program for an event that costs nothing at most other conventions. This method comes in lieu of a non-profit organization by the name of the Blue Ribbon Army (BFA) that requires member fees that range from $20 to $100, according to The Mary Sue. Also mentioned was a conflict of interest when it was discovered that the convention director, Matt Solberg, was also a board member of said Blue Ribbon Army.

This appears to be an incentive to people who are more than likely to dedicate themselves to their volunteer station and found it to be “a necessary step to avoid deadbeat volunteers.” This isn’t surprising considering it’s hard to find reliable help these days and it is not much to ask to work a shift at a convention in exchange for free access to the event.

By making this part of this BFA tiered program, you would think this would be a good idea, right?

Well, this Phoenix Comicon volunteer program seems to have raised controversy in the geek community. A former volunteer by the name of Sara Santiago had expressed her views regarding this change. She figured the $20 membership fee to be an insult considering she has lost money by taking time off work, expenditures in her own hotel accommodations, and the like. So it would make sense that this would be upsetting considering she is already using up her time and resources and tacking on a membership fee as well.

Santiago suggested this move by the 2017 Phoenix Comicon expresses that what she’s done is not enough. Apparently, she feels the convention event is ungrateful for her service.

“It’s the insult. It’s the message that my years of service and sacrifice are not enough. My time and my talents are not enough. My professionalism is not enough. My flexibility is not enough—I need to bend over backward just a liiiittle bit more.”

Solberg made a statement regarding the serious controversial reaction this volunteer move has made. He mentioned that this reaction was not expected and had even escalated to the unfriending of others on social media.

“We did not expect this level of reaction. That friends are unfriending others over this issue is anathema to the core values of both Phoenix Comicon and Blue Ribbon Army, which seek to provide opportunities for those of us in the geek community to celebrate our interests and meet others.”

There were ultimately two choices that Solberg had to go with in order to keep things legal when it comes to labor laws. The one option was to run it as a non-profit event and take on the volunteers signed up under the Blue Ribbon Army membership and the other choice would be to keep it for-profit and actually pay their volunteers. The latter of which would be cutting a chunk of their staff to compensate for affordability.

Apparently some non-profit conventions can take on volunteers and those events, like the San Diego Comicon, are tax exempt.

For-profit events had ran into legal issues regarding the requirement of even volunteers being paid. For instance, Emerald City Comicon ran into a situation where a volunteer sued the convention for failure to compensate him/her for the number of hours worked that was equivalent to that of a full time employee.

Arizona is quite vague in their labor laws so it may be likely, to cover Phoenix Comicon’s backside, they went with the non-profit BFA option.

“Given the vast number of passionate individuals who participate within Phoenix Comicon, and to minimize the disruption to our overall operations, we chose the second option: to utilize a non-profit social club.”

Either way both methods had a downside. So could you say in the defense of Matt that he chose the lesser of the two evils?

That being said, Solberg now regrets having made the BFA option a choice, according to Phoenix New Times. It looks like this situation is a learning process for him has he is deliberately trying to avoid the pitfalls like the Emerald City lawsuit. However, he did acknowledged the fact that though the decision had been made, it was done so without explanation which resulted in the impassioned backlash from the geek culture community.

“We wrongly believed that the other benefits of membership within Blue Ribbon Army would be seen as outweighing the annual dues. Unfortunately, by not clearly explaining the reason for the change, many in the community took away an unintended message.”

Now Solberg intends on being more transparent when it comes to volunteering at the Phoenix Comicon and is waiting hear feedback from volunteers and staff. That way there’s more involvement on their part and he decided to get them involved in which of the two options would be desirable.

[Featured Image by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images]