Phoenix Comicon Now Requiring Volunteers to Pay Membership Dues

One of the big legal quandaries facing for-profit conventions is the quasi-legality of a for-profit business using an unpaid, volunteer workforce. Phoenix Comicon seems to have come to a unique solution to the problem though: require all volunteers to join a separate, legally unrelated “social club” non-profit called the Blue Ribbon Army. Membership in the Blue Ribbon Army costs $20 a year, which means that any event volunteers must now pay $20 for the privilege to do so.

In an email to event staff, Matthew Solberg stated that the reason for this change was because volunteers were skipping out on shifts and not completing the work they committed to. And while that might be true, many other events are able to manage their volunteers well enough where this isn’t a mass problem.

There are a handful of volunteer and worker structures in the convention scene, but this one is just weird. You see, normally, cons fall into three types of systems: Volunteers get in free, volunteers get reimbursed for admission, or volunteers get their next con paid for. In two of those systems, volunteers give money directly to the con the first time around (and this would address Solberg’s issues). To have the volunteers join a separate organization, where they pay a fee they won’t get back, is just super, super weird.

And all I’m left going back to is the quasi-legality of volunteering for a for-profit organization.

By using a non-profit to staff the event, Solberg is attempting to create a loophole where he doesn’t have to pay his workforce (should the gray area most for-profit con’s volunteer programs operate in ever become black and white). But since the organizations are legally distinct, the dues from the Blue Ribbon Army can’t be reimbursed for working at the convention (as that could be seen as compensation from the for-profit company). It’s all very complicated, but no other reason really makes sense.

  • Tristan Barkley

    As a volunteer coordinator for a con going into its 3rd year, I cannot even fathom this. I have hour requirements to receive a free badge, people who don’t show up for the shifts without a legit reason get blacklisted. I have seen cons fail even with doing the you pay upfront and are reimbursed after you work a certain number of hours. The main reason people volunteer, at least from the people I’ve talked to, is to avoid having to pay the entry fee. How could anyone possibly think this is a good idea?

  • William Freedman

    I wrote but, at the request of my colleagues on the core team, didn’t publish a boroughcon.com blog post on this topic. But I can state categorically that BoroughCon will never charge volunteers.