Convention Volunteering is Service
By: Meg Humphrey
Fair warning: I’m getting up on my soapbox of righteousness.
I’ve staffed in the programming department of my local anime con for the last nine years – as soon as I turned 18 and was allowed to (and I’ve attended for 6 years before then). For the past three years I’ve been the Panels Coordinator; it’s a job that is practically year round work, mostly thankless and anonymous, and will always get the blame for something or other no matter how hard you try to make everything right.
So why do I do it? Sure, I get some official perks like a complimentary membership, but this is an unpaid volunteer job. What’s the point if it constantly stresses me out and has become less and less fun over the years?
It’s because I get messages like this: “I was having a thoroughly horrible day until I read this email [with news of a better panel room and time]. This news has really brightened up an absolutely terrible workday,” and like this: “I really appreciate the work that you do to make the con as amazing as it is. Thank you.” It’s because I was stopped in the hall and told that I was the nicest staffer an attendee had ever seen (just for doing basic things like helping a cosplayer keep their skirts from getting stuck in the escalator or answering a registration question I knew the answer to) and because other attendees feel safe and comfortable enough to trust me with their serious complaints.
When it boils down to it, volunteer staffing is about service to others. It’s about helping make something great for someone else. I admit that I get some personal benefits from it – I’ve learned a bunch of a skills and programs that look great on my professional resume – but there are a lot of other ways to do that. Your main goals should be making life easier for the rest of your team and making a great convention experience for as many attendees as possible. If you’re not doing this to positively impact the fandom experience of others, then you shouldn’t be here.
I know that the reality doesn’t live up to my ideal. Volunteer needs at conventions are mighty and most can’t afford to turn people away who are really only interested in getting a free ticket or hanging out with their buddies on shift. Even if they could, there’s no way to be sure that people’s interviews or survey responses align with their behavior until it’s already game time. So it’s really up to those individuals who volunteer to keep perspective on the reasons why conventions are important.
You might think that it’s “just” an anime con, or a video game con, or a comic con! If people really wanted to do some good, then they should be volunteering their time somewhere else like a shelter or food bank, right? Well, no. I grew up here so I understand what kind of impact these conventions can have on people. They can give you a place where you belong, where you can be comfortable being completely yourself. It can be a family, a community, and the proof that you’re not alone. Every person has the right to feel that way and those of us who sign up to help need to remember the impact of what we’re doing and that we are here to foster those feelings.