After outcry, Phoenix Comicon re-evaluating decision to outsource volunteer staff to nonprofit

Events, Featured, Top story
Owner: Options available for Phoenix Comicon include dues-paying Blue Ribbon Army members, smaller paid staff
Phoenix Comicon 2016
Phoenix Comicon 2016 (Bob Leeper photo for Nerdvana)

After sparking a national social media debate by deciding to outsource its volunteer staff to a dues-paying nonprofit club, Phoenix Comicon is apparently tabling that plan for now, and will consider it along with other options — including a dedicated, paid-staff model that could result in a much smaller team.

Phoenix Comicon director Matt Solberg addressed the outcry in an email to staff and volunteers today; he confirmed the email to Nerdvana. As we reported last week, the plan was to use the Blue Ribbon Army, a social Phoenix Comicon fan club recently reorganized into a nonprofit with Solberg on the board, to recruit volunteer staff members, who would need to pay annual dues of at least $20 to Blue Ribbon Army.

The decision was met with a fierce outcry on social media, which in turn prompted backlash from loyal Blue Ribbon Army members and leaders. National blogs and local TV news even covered the fracas, which included a longtime exhibitor and former Phoenix Comicon staff member having her booth canceled and fees refunded after she spoke out against the volunteers being charged dues. Artist Anabel Martinez said she was permanently banned from Phoenix Comicon.

For-profit conventions such as Phoenix Comicon are facing mounting pressure nationwide to change the way they staff their lucrative and growing events. Emerald City Comicon in Seattle and Wizards of the Coast’s gaming events have recently faced legal action for treating volunteers like employees but not paying them as such. A common workaround has been to use a nonprofit organization to manage volunteer staff; they often charge dues, but the event access and various other perks are usually seen as more than worth it to die-hard volunteers.

“Maintaining the status quo is not an option, no matter how much we all wish that it could be,” Solberg said in today’s email.

According to Solberg, he will continue to support and encourage the Blue Ribbon Army’s charitable efforts, but he will not remain on the board of the nonprofit and has “begun the process of unwinding” his equity position and will have no voting stake.

Solberg said meetings would be held with volunteers and staff to discuss the options available to Phoenix Comicon, including using dedicated staff that would be paid, but would be fewer in number, as well as the option of staffing through a nonprofit with unpaid volunteers. “If the decision is made to work with a nonprofit, that nonprofit will be Blue Ribbon Army,” he later confirmed directly to Nerdvana.

Phoenix Comicon takes place Memorial Day weekend, May 25-28, at the Phoenix Convention Center and Hyatt Regency. Event passes are on sale now, and prices will go up Feb. 1.

Phoenix Comicon volunteer staff will pay dues (UPDATED)

Solberg’s letter appears below.

Dear All,

Let me start by apologizing for the rupture that has occurred in our community because of the announcement last week regarding the new requirement that volunteers be part of the newly-formed Blue Ribbon Army. 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. As another said, “This is con circuit; not politics.”

It should not be lost on anyone that the visceral reaction is a sign of how passionate our community is about Phoenix Comicon and that we all have a common interest in seeing it thrive for years to come. Unfortunately, our messaging failed to adequately communicate the reasons for the change and why the change is vital to the continued viability of Phoenix Comicon. I want to now correct that mistake and speak candidly about the reasons for the proposed change. We also want to solicit your comments and feedback on the options available to Phoenix Comicon going forward.

When I started Phoenix Comicon I simply followed the model that existed for decades prior to me: volunteers working for a for-profit company. That model is so prevalent within conventions and sporting events that it never occurred to me that there might be legal hurdles in operating in such a fashion.
However, in recent years, both private parties and governmental agencies have taken the position that a for-profit company can only use volunteer labor under limited circumstances and the lines are not always bright. In my announcement last week, I referenced changes within the industry that are forcing us to adopt a new staffing process without offering specifics. I was referring to this shift in position. One need not look far to see stories related to this shift.
Here’s one on the lawsuit over at Emerald City Comic Con over their staffing policies: http://icv2.com/articles/news/view/34573/conventions-next-class-action-lawsuit-target

Here’s one from The Mary Sue on overall convention volunteers: http://www.themarysue.com/convention-volunteers/

And one on the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/26/south_by_southwest%E2%80%99s_unpaid_labor_problem_why_its_risking_a_class_action_lawsuit/

And one on our decision that details the overall industry: http://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/36432/con-volunteer-headaches-are-coming-home-roost

And here’s a good one on five trends to watch for next year:
http://icv2.com/articles/columns/view/36374/five-convention-trends-watch-2017

Simply put, although we believe that Phoenix Comicon has always acted legally, the model we have used presents too large of a risk moving forward. Phoenix Comicon can no longer use direct volunteers to staff the convention while maintaining its current status.

We have two options:
One – go to an all paid staff for Phoenix Comicon. This would bring a more dedicated and professional staff, but would require a reduction of over one thousand positions, as Phoenix Comicon cannot afford to pay over 1,400 volunteers. It would further require an update to our existing organizational structure and process. We estimate that less than 30% of existing staff would be offered a paid position.

Two – liaise with a non-profit social club recognized as a 501(c)(7) whose members pay annual dues. This would require volunteers to pay an annual fee in the amount of $20. We would be able to maintain a similar structure to what we use today and estimate that up to 90% of existing staff would maintain their role.

Maintaining the status quo is not an option, no matter how much we all wish that it could be.

In weighing the two options available to us we considered a number of factors. First and foremost in our minds was the desire to allow each and every one of you to remain involved. As I said above, the option to go to a paid staff would eliminate more than two-thirds of the staffing opportunities. That means that the majority of you would be unable to participate in helping Phoenix Comicon moving forward.

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. We chose Blue Ribbon Army as they share our values, have been a part of our community since 2013, and have shown their good intentions through their charity fundraising parties. There is already crossover in the membership of Phoenix Comicon and Blue Ribbon Army. 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.

When we announced this change last week, we minimized discussion of the shift in the industry that makes changing our staffing model imperative. As I said above, that was a mistake. The resulting blow up within our community on social media, geek news sites, and local and national news outlets is greater than we anticipated. We knew this would be difficult, but we underestimated the reaction.

In hindsight, we should have been clear that the choice is not between the status quo and working with the Blue Ribbon Army, but between one model wherein we see significant reductions in the number of positions and individuals who participate and another model that works with the Blue Ribbon Army and keeps the number of positions and individuals we do have though it requires a fee to join.

I do believe in the Blue Ribbon Army. Matt and Jen Hinds as Founders of Blue Ribbon Army have a great vision for the organization. I think it is a positive force for good within our community and has the potential to become so much greater than it is. The resulting firestorm over this announcement has shown that the Blue Ribbon Army will not live up to its full potential with my direct involvement. Many of you were concerned over my involvement as an Equity and Board member and any perceived conflicts of interest. Therefore, effective immediately, I am resigning my position on the board and have begun the process of unwinding my equity position. This will place the power and voting rights of Blue Ribbon Army in the hands of Matt and Jen Hinds. Upon completion I will have no equity or voting stake within Blue Ribbon Army and will not be listed on any documents filed with the state, although Square Egg Entertainment remains a corporate member. You can bet that I’ll be promoting their efforts as much as I can to help them grow. They are an organization that deserves your consideration.

With that said, many of you may still feel that using Blue Ribbon Army for our staffing needs is unacceptable, and the model we need to follow is that of paid staff, with the resulting reduction in force. For anyone who has already purchased a Blue Ribbon Army membership who wishes to not take part in said group will receive a full refund. Please contact Blue Ribbon Army.

At this point, I’m open to either model, as each has strengths and weaknesses. My sole purpose is to ensure Phoenix Comicon avoids becoming embroiled in the controversies caused by the shifting industry model and can continue for years to come. We are therefore soliciting your comments and feedback in this regard.

Now is the time for you all as staff and volunteers to come ask questions and make your opinion known. We have meetings scheduled Thursday night, Saturday morning and afternoon that you can RSVP: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/phoenix-comicon-2017-staffing-improvement-meeting-tickets-30726358365

Then next Saturday January 14th we will conduct our first All Hands meeting to discuss this topic. The meeting will be held at the Phoenix Convention Center at 10AM. We will not hold breakout or additional meetings on this day as we have in the past. RSVP link will go out early next week. I’ll be answering questions about how each option will impact Phoenix Comicon, and then in the week following our All Hands meeting on January 14th, we’ll provide our existing staff and volunteers with a chance to directly make their opinion known on which model we should pursue. Results will be made public, with the final decision resting in the hands of the employees and ownership of Square Egg Entertainment.

I have always held that we listen to our attendees and the community. We make mistakes. We don’t always get it right, but we listen, we continually make improvements, and we cherish that which we have created. I have great admiration for those who have given to our little show that could. I have personally responded to as many comments as I could, most of the time good, some of the time, well, not so good.

I know this is the most significant transition Phoenix Comicon has yet to make. I know there will be many who will disagree with whatever decision we chose. But I know that Phoenix Comicon will survive, thrive, and continue to provide a source of joy and excitement to thousands of attendees.
This industry is changing and Phoenix Comicon will change and improve as best as we can. I believe we have a chance to lead with our decision and unite in common cause.

Thank you,

Matthew Solberg
Convention Director, Phoenix Comicon
Owner and CEO, Square Egg Entertainment Inc

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