After weeks of controversy regarding changes to its volunteer model, Phoenix Comicon has arrived at a surprising decision: they are going to pay their (reduced) volunteer force.
Actual statement: "After much deliberation, we have decided to shift to an all paid staff in the operation of Phoenix Comicon and all events associated with Square Egg Entertainment, including Phoenix Fan Fest, Minnesota Fan Fest and Keen Halloween."
The email didn't discuss numbers but I'm hearing the plan is to reduce from 1300 volunteers to 400. (Emphasis on "hear".) A colossal reduction in volunteers seems inevitable, along with these questions:
- How do you drastically reduce the number of volunteers for a rapidly growing Con? Remember, PHXCC joined the 6-figure attendee club last year. One proposed answer is that one paid volunteer can do the work of several unpaid volunteers. That suggests they won't have time to enjoy the Con, always a selling point of volunteering, but these paid volunteers may be more like the security guards and other staff we see at Cons: procured as labor and nothing more. Given the number of volunteer hopefuls, though, it's impossible to discount their enthusiasm for PHXCC.
- Will badge prices go up? We don't know yet - but I would guess any increase would be moderate. And the money would be unlikely to come only from badge sales, since Cons have other revenue streams such as sponsorships and booth fees. But I'm only speculating here.
- What about the former volunteers who now won't be picked? This we have an answer for: each 2016 volunteer will receive 2 free full event tickets for 2017 if they're not selected to volunteer.
- Will this turn the tide of ill will that's been mounting in the Phoenix nerd community? This is subjective, but I'd wager... not so much. I can't say this enough: the free badge aspect is not the chief draw for most volunteers. (Though sheer access may be for sold-out Cons like SDCC.) Passionate fans love to feel involved with Comic Cons. Some genuinely enjoy helping attendees, others love the small amount of authority they have, many look forward to the social opportunities that come with joining a fun community, and so on. While it's laudable that the organizers want to compensate their volunteers fairly and stay on the right side of the law, anticipating their own exclusion has left many people feeling sad or resentful today. (On the positive side, I'm sure some of them will be inspired to host an event or participate in the Con another way.)
The decision is being justified as as a move that "avoids further controversies as this industry changes, keeps us compliant with changing laws and increases the professionalism and effectiveness of our team." Everyone's free to dissect that wording however they like - but it can't be denied that the burgeoning Con sphere is introducing complex questions around volunteering and compensation, and even the definition of non-profit vs. for-profit. So don't think this conversation is over - we'll be having it at other Cons, in other years, with many possible outcomes in play.