January 5, 2017; ABC15-TV (Phoenix, AZ)

The Phoenix Comicon (TPC) released a 1,530-word apology on Thursday for the lack of transparency in its recent decision to charge volunteers to support its Memorial Day weekend comic convention. The decision caused an uproar amongst TPC’s volunteer workforce, who have exchanged their service for free access to the coveted event.

“We did not expect this level of reaction,” said Director Matthew Solberg in his letter.

And, while the decision currently stands, Solberg has now established a series of meetings in which members can share their perspective on which path TPC should take.

As Nonprofit Quarterly has reported in the past, the nonprofit status or lack thereof of the increasingly popular comic convention industry is rife with complexities and has implications for the sector more broadly. While many “cons” purport to build community and provide education and analysis of critical issues such as race and politics, the corporate marketing and merchandising associated with these events can call into question whether they’re just a convenient, feel-good revenue generator for “geek” industries. This has caused their hosts—largely the hotels and convention centers at which they hold their events—to push back on the discounts they receive based on their nonprofit status.

Not all cons are nonprofits. For example, TPC is a for-profit business. Indeed, it’s that for-profit status that motivated TPC to rethink its volunteer policy and redirect them through Blue Ribbon Army (BRA). BRA is a Phoenix-based 501(c)(7) social and recreation organization that supports geek culture. With its nonprofit status, BRA can more easily accept volunteers and membership dues—unlike a for-profit business, where engaging volunteers quickly brings up questions around fair labor practices. Until last week, Solberg maintained both a board position and equity stake in BRA.

As with most comic conventions, TPC is heavily reliant on its volunteer workforce to pull off its event. In the apology Solberg sent out, he cited that TPC had two options: establish this pay-to-play nonprofit model and avoid legal complexities, or start paying its volunteer staff and lay off up to 1,000 positions. It chose the former, assuming that “the other benefits of membership within Blue Ribbon Army would be seen as outweighing the annual dues.” Negative member reaction has prompted him to create this series of meetings so that members have a stake in the ultimate decision that is enacted.

But which path TPC should take is not just a matter of member and management preference. The issues of worker legality and fairness need to be a core part of this conversation, whether or not in this case members are currently motivated to advocate for themselves in that way. While both potential paths are technically legal within the framework provided, TPC’s continuing to reap the benefits of a volunteer workforce blurs the spirit and intention of those frameworks.—Danielle Holly