Comicon Pay-to-volunteer Model Raises Questions of Status


Phoenix Comicon statue / Gage Skidmore

January 1, 2017; The Mary Sue

Phoenix Comicon now requires the volunteers for its Memorial Day Weekend event to pay to volunteer. The increasingly popular comic convention (or “con”) culture is dependent on its volunteer workforce to power its large-scale events. While some conventions are nonprofits, many, including the Phoenix Comicon, are for-profit businesses.

According to Phoenix Comicon, charging volunteers is meant to ensure they complete their assigned work after receiving the benefits associated with volunteer service—namely, access to the convention. Phoenix Comicon channels this volunteer payment through Blue Ribbon Army, a 501(c)(7) nonprofit organization. Categorized as “social and recreational clubs,” 501(c)(7) nonprofits receive federal tax-exempt status. Unlike 501(c)(3) nonprofits, though, donations to Blue Ribbon are not tax-deductible.

In this situation, status is everything. The Phoenix Comicon, as a for-profit company, is allowed to employ a volunteer workforce but is held to a stronger litmus test than nonprofit organizations in terms of whether those volunteers should be classified as employees and thus need to receive minimum wage and such benefits as workers’ compensation. If Comicon’s volunteers could be classified as employees, then Comicon should be paying them—not the other way around. This often-gray area of labor is what caused the scandal at for-profit Reddit in 2015, which was found to be unfairly using volunteer moderators to run its site.

This gray area is likely a contributing factor to Phoenix Comicon’s decision to funnel volunteer fees to membership at Blue Ribbon Army, where, according to its 501(c)(7) status, 65 percent of its revenue needs to stem from membership fees.

Finally, for charitable nonprofits, or 501(c)(3) organizations, requesting payment for volunteering is an increasingly popular practice, and one that helps organizations sustain their operations—and, in particular, recruit, manage, and sustain the volunteer workforce they often rely upon. While it can feel counterintuitive for volunteers to pay to serve, the effort required for nonprofits to absorb and deploy a volunteer workforce is significant. As both formal corporate volunteer programs and solo entrepreneurs looking to build up their client base increase, volunteers are a plentiful resource for 501(c)(3) organizations. It’s critical to balance the value these volunteers deliver with the cost it takes to engage them.

Ultimately, the result of whether it’s kosher to have a paying volunteer workforce comes down to the nature of the organization and the work that’s being done, which can be complex to understand and identify.—Danielle Holly

  • Paul Guba

    Personally I would never pay to volunteer I would just rather make a donation as it is tax deductible. I have to a question an organization that cannot support a donated workforce and the cost to implement one is more costly then the value of the volunteers effort. However its not without precedent as plumb intern jobs (also considered volunteer) have been a for cost expense for the volunteer intern. In some case there is even a cost to apply. These were at for profit organizations. Ultimately as one of my first employers said to me; “every body wants something for nothing its my job to make sure they don’t get it”. In this case seems like they want more then something for nothing.

  • Benjamin Bisbee

    Ok, I’m terribly horrified by this article, Danielle. On one hand, it’s a reminder that some of the private sector will sometimes do just about any shameful thing to squeeze a dollar of of just about anything–including charging people to give of their own time. And that’s its own issue, trust me. The for profit industry needs to develop their own formal term for essentially working around the legal mire of not charging people fairly for their own needs and not borrow against nonprofit and volunteer tropes to success by failing models they don’t even own.

    On the other hand, I feel like people like us–people who are trying so very hard to propel the nonprofit industry to create true partnerships, to exemplify their best selves–to fight the good fight about this black eye within the industry. Of course free labor isn’t free. Of course volunteer departments–like any human capital–costs money to run and run well. Why is this still up for debate? Why are we using that truth to tear down the industry itself? Charging volunteers to volunteer in the nonprofit sector because the very department “costs money” is like asking employees to actively donate back every paycheck because HR needs paid too. It’s insane to justify this.