Matt Solberg, director of Phoenix Comicon, is ending his involvement with Blue Ribbon Army, the nonprofit that potential Phoenix Comicon volunteers are required to join. The new requirement stirred a controversy, as membership fees range from $20 to $100, and the perception was that Phoenix Comicon was requiring people to actually pay for the privilege of working for free
According to filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission, Solberg is both the sole director of Blue Ribbon Army and the president/CEO and director of Square Egg Entertainment, the parent company of Phoenix Comicon.
In a statement forwarded to CBR by Phoenix Comicon’s press liaison, but apparently originally addressed to the con’s staff and volunteers, Solberg apologized for “the rupture that has occurred in our community” following his announcement and explained why he made the change: He believes there is a significant legal risk in continuing to use unpaid volunteers to staff the con, which is a for-profit enterprise:
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 light of these facts—Solberg specifically cited the class action suit that a volunteer has filed against Emerald City Comic Con for using unpaid volunteers—he decided he had two possible courses of action: Shift to a fully paid staff or have the volunteers work for a nonprofit rather than for Phoenix Comic Con per se. He chose the latter route because moving to a paid staff would require him to cut more than 70% of the current positions, meaning fewer people could participate in the con:
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.
Blue Ribbon Army started in 2013 as a Facebook group for fans of the con and got its name from the blue ribbons they wore to identify one another at the con. According to documents filed with the state of Arizona, the Blue Ribbon Army nonprofit was formally created in March 2015 with three directors: Matt and Jen Hinds and Thomas Hanks. In March 2016, Solberg formed his own nonprofit, called MS4007, and the following month, the original Blue Ribbon Army was dissolved and Solberg renamed MS4007 as Blue Ribbon Army. This new Blue Ribbon Army has just one director listed in the state database: Solberg.
The Blue Ribbon Army is a nonprofit social club, which is different from a charitable organization: It is required by law to charge membership dues. “We wrongly believed that the other benefits of membership within Blue Ribbon Army would be seen as outweighing the annual dues,” Solberg said in his statement.
As a result of the controversy, Solberg said he is ending his formal involvement with Blue Ribbon Army:
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.
Furthermore, he has scheduled several meetings with staff and volunteers to answer their questions and listen to their opinions, after which he will provide a means for current staff and volunteers to express their opinions as to which model the con should follow going forward—nonprofit or paid-staff. “Results will be made public, with the final decision resting in the hands of the employees and ownership of Square Egg Entertainment,” he said.