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Life Skills for Fanboys:  Convention Volunteers

written by Tony DiGerolamo, Copyright 2013

I’m back with another skill, this one a bit more specific.  Take this criticism in the constructive way it is given.  Like you, I am also a fanboy.

The Idea Behind Volunteers

The concept behind convention volunteers is a noble one.  The geek community needs conventions so that we can connect with fellow fans.  Conventions are often expensive to organize and run.  Some cons are essentially non-profit operations.  Whatever money is made is used to cover costs and banked for next year.

Hiring a staff of corporate drones in black polo shirts often turns conventions into impersonal, money operations.  And, in the pursuit of money, whatever personality a convention once had is often lost.  So, in many ways, con volunteers are the personality of a convention.

The Problems

Just because your con is not part of a larger corporation out to fleece the fandom for every cent doesn’t mean you con will be a positive experience for the fans.  There are several pointed problems I see with volunteers when I attend shows.

1.  The Mercenary Attitude:  While many fans volunteer out of the goodness of their heart or simply because they don’t have the money to attend the con, some are merely there to avoid paying the entrance fee.  Once they’ve gotten their staff shirt and badge, they seek to shirk their duties or do the minimum at every turn.  As long as they get to their game or their event, they could give a crap about the rest of the con.

2.  The Untrained Masses:  Some fans are extremely earnest and willing to help when they volunteer, but if they aren’t given the proper training and leadership at the convention, there’s nothing much they can do other than mill about the floor and point out “fires” when they happen to someone who can actually do something.  In many ways, untrained volunteers are worse than no volunteers.  At least if there are no volunteers, I know I’m on my own.  But when someone untrained agrees to help solve my problem or answer my question, then disappears and never comes back, I’ve wasted a lot of my time.

3.  King Geek:  King Geek is a con volunteer who is a veteran and has decided to promote himself within his own mind.  He claims way more authority than he has and acts like he owns the convention.  Nothing is worse than a geek who throws his weight around and then it turns out he doesn’t even have any to throw.

4.  The Complainer:  Passive aggressive, angry and often bitter, this volunteer would rather complain about everyone else than actually just do the work.  Yeah, I understand no one is listening to, it’s a shame they wasn’t better training and no, this isn’t how I would run a con either, but should you be helping instead of bitching to me?

5.  The Unprofessional:  Look, I understand you’re a volunteer, but this isn’t your parents’ basement.  Get organized and do your job.  Stop talking on your cellphone to your friend about the autograph line and listen to your supervisor.  If you really just wanted to be at the con, then you shouldn’t volunteer.  Work or play, don’t do both at the same time.

The Solutions

Organizations need strong leadership and conventions are no exception.  One person needs to be in charge and the hierarchy naturally extends out from that one person.  Yes, I understand there are often counsels and clubs and large groups of people that are behind the scenes, spending money and organizing.  But the actually day-to-day running of an event needs to move with one voice and one purpose.  After the event is over, you can re-evaluate the leader’s performance and decide to replace him or her.

Once you have a strong leader, it all comes down to getting to know the volunteers and training them.  Mercenary volunteers are useless.  Identify them and kick them out if they don’t do their jobs.  The rest must be trained.  They must know their place in the hierarchy of the organization.  They cannot complain to the public and they must act like professionals during the entire event.

The Limits of Volunteers

Employees have to do their jobs, but volunteers can only be pushed so far.  They must have times scheduled “off” so they can enjoy the event and they should be thanked for their service by those above.  While it is important to make sure everyone is doing their jobs, it is also very important to respect volunteers.  Without respect, volunteers will not return and your convention will find itself short staffed next year.