Volunteer Experiences: WonderCon 2016 and Nerd HQ 2015

I like to volunteer for different groups and events, and lately I’ve found a lot of value in different volunteer opportunities. I take time to volunteer for the Special Olympics because the program’s benefits to members with intellectual disabilities in my (and the global) community are incredible and unmatched by any other organization. Outside of charities, I also like to volunteer for large events because they provide a great opportunity to learn about how different companies manage the event process and particularly, volunteerism.

Before I begin, I want to note that my full time job is managing internal employee programs for a large organization (100,000 employees), including volunteerism, charitable giving and some other corporate social responsibility elements. I like to volunteer in these areas so I can literally see how other organizations do the same things I do each day. In addition, it gives me the chance to experience events from a volunteer’s perspective.

WonderCon 2016 was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from March 25th – March 27th, and I volunteered three of the four days. Last year, I volunteered for Nerd HQ 2015, held in San Diego, CA the same weekend as San Diego Comic-Con. Nerd HQ was my first volunteer experience at one of the cons, and although it was way back in 2015, I remember the details because it was a rather challenging event. Here is my review of volunteering for WonderCon 2016 wiith comparisons to Nerd HQ 2015.

Volunteer Sign Up and Selection Process

WonderCon 2016

Signing up for WonderCon 2016 was a breeze. I simply submitted an online application, and seconds later I received a confirmation email stating that I was approved to volunteer. The email mentioned that WonderCon would send more communication closer to the event, and they did. The week prior, they sent an email inquiring whether I could assist with the event setup on the Thursday before the event. Signing up for Thursday volunteer times was also very simple, and hours were confirmed the same day the applicants’ responses were submitted.

Nerd HQ 2015

The sign up process for Nerd HQ was also online and rather simple. I remember seeing the link on Facebook and immediately applied. The selection process was more extensive than that of WonderCon. I actually had to do an over-the-phone interview, after which I was informed I made the cut.

Volunteer Perks

WonderCon 2016

WonderCon volunteers received a free daily pass for each day they volunteered. You received the pass each morning (or afternoon) when you check in for  your shift, and the pass remained active for that day. The day passes were accompanied by a card with an RFID that was deactivated at the end of each day and activated the next day you returned to volunteer. At the end of each shift, a supervisor had to sign a piece of paper that the volunteer then had to provide to the front desk in order to receive their assignment for the next day. I thought this was a clever way to make sure volunteers actually showed up for and completed their shifts.

WonderCon was very strict about volunteers not using their badges to gain early or special access to panels, cast signings or any other line-related activities at the event. So basically, you get a day pass for your time (which was limited to three hours of volunteering each day). Three-day badges were $36, and single day badge prices ranges $18 and $30.

Nerd HQ 2015

Unlike WonderCon, Nerd HQ is not a paid entry event. It’s completely free for all attendees with the exception of the Conversations for a Cause panels, which cost $22 each, and most sell out within seconds. I should also note that profits from Nerd HQ benefit Operation Smile.

Volunteers received two volunteer shirts (to be used over 4-5 days) and a discount on Nerd HQ merchandise at the event (and periodically after the event as well). The week/end of the event, coordinators notified us that volunteers would be able to sit in on two panels (since many of us were not able to get tickets to them) as long as we could get our shifts covered. I thought this was a nice perk that was added at the last minute.

Volunteer Training and Duties

WonderCon 2016

Volunteers received a handbook of dos and don’ts, but there was not any formal training provided except for a brief overview of duties at the beginning of the shift. During the days I volunteered, I assisted with pulling files for the Exhibitor registration area. The other days, I helped at Professional registration where my buddy and I stuffed the hell out of more than 1,000 badges. Although I wasn’t on a computer or helping out on any high-level stuff, I was in a good position to see the back end of the registration process for exhibitors and professionals, complete with complaints, technological issues, registration problems and special circumstances.

Nerd HQ 2015

The training for Nerd HQ 2015 volunteers was to be held at 6 pm on a Wednesday at the event location. When I showed up at 5:45 pm, the group had already completed the venue tour. WTF moment #1. If a training is supposed to start at 6, why would you proceed with one of the most important parts of that training prior to the start time? Other than that, Nerd HQ/Nerd Machine founders and staff thanked everyone for their participation and reminded everyone that they were there for Nerd HQ and Operation Smile, NOT to rub elbows with celebrities. As someone who interned for the LA Clippers and FOX, dealt professionally with countless celebrities and sat in front of Gene Simmons at the 2011 NBA All-Star Game, perhaps that should have been a red flag and an indication of the type of people volunteering for the event.

2011+NBA+Star+Game+Performances+Celebrities+QNjkHR10imdl

See? I wasn’t kidding.

The volunteer duties for Nerd HQ were more varied and hands on than those for WonderCon. As a volunteer I assisted in the panels room one day, and on another day, I helped at the Operation Smile table where I talked to visitors about the charity and reminded them that it was the recipient of the proceeds from Nerd HQ. The longest day of my volunteerism stint was spent on the entry ramp welcoming Nerd HQ visitors and telling them to watch their step so they didn’t eat it on the slightly raised portion of the floor. Welcoming guests was cool, but the majority of that time was also spent as a human wall, telling patrons that the ramp was NOT AN EXIT. I must say that a properly placed sign would have really helped.

 

Volunteer Scheduling and Hours

WonderCon 2016

Volunteers could volunteer for as many days of the event as they like, but they were limited to one (1), three-hour shift each day. On the Friday I volunteered, the Professional Registration section where I worked in the morning was slammed. When I went to check out of my shift, I offered to stay longer and help until things slowed down, but the WonderCon staff member literally said, “No. You’re done. Go have some fun!”

I thought this was a little odd because they needed the help, but I happily walked off with my badge to check out the Exhibition Hall. It’s actually a smart tactic for WonderCon because it ensures that their volunteers are not being over worked. As such, it’s also a great way to make sure volunteers don’t come back and threaten to sue for being over worked without proper compensation.

Nerd HQ 2015

The coordinators for Nerd HQ 2015 sent out a volunteer schedule and maintained open communication throughout the week/end. There seemed to be a lot of requests for volunteers to cover additional shifts, which was challenging because on most of the days, I was already volunteering for eight hours. This left me with little time (and even less energy) to check out the happenings at Nerd HQ or outside on the streets of Comic-Con.

It also seemed like there were a lot of volunteers who either did not show up or did not stay the entire time for their volunteer shifts. Again, this left the loyal volunteers (like my foolish self) stranded at a post for far too long without a break. One of the days, I volunteered (standing the entire time) for nine hours and barely had a 20 minute break to eat something.

I noticed that many of the volunteers who worked long hours for the event did so with a giant smile and almost bragged about the number of long hours they were there. At times I felt like I was Mugatu taking crazy pills because one, I took time off work and spent a decent amount of money to be in San Diego and volunteer for Nerd HQ, and two, my real job that provides health benefits, a bi-monthly paycheck, lunch breaks and PTO doesn’t work me long hours without a break. I didn’t think it needed to be said, but to the person who tried to shame me by bragging about the 12 hours she worked without a break, it’s not a competition.

Volunteer Respect: Volunteer-Volunteer

WonderCon 2016

I didn’t see or get to chat with a ton of WonderCon volunteers because the shifts were so short, and there were only a few people at each post. What I derived from the few people I met was that they enjoyed the shorts shifts and duties and planned to return the next year. People wanted to be there and were accountable for their roles within their shifts. This made everything simple and straight forward.

Nerd HQ 2015

As I mentioned in the section above, it seemed like an unfortunately large number of volunteers either did not show up for their shifts or did not stay on shift the entire time. Even more frustrating was the fact that the no-shows did not communicate their absences to the other volunteers. There were plenty of people who needed an extra 15 minutes to get to their assigned area and communicated that to others, leaving us time to adjust accordingly.

Like WonderCon, it seemed like Nerd HQ tried to prevent volunteers from using their status to gain early entry to things like the panels and the Smiles for Smiles photo sessions that followed the panels. In fact, volunteers were not supposed to wear their volunteer shirts when they were not volunteering, which I totally understand. What I don’t quite get is the inconsistencies in enforcing this particular “rule.” I paid to take a picture with the Power Rangers, and I took a brief break from my shift to run over and get in line to do so. I  asked if I could keep my volunteer shirt on so I could hide my fat arms, but I was told that I needed to take it off.

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This wouldn’t have been an issue had I not seen a ton of other Smiles for Smiles pictures with panel members and Nerd HQ volunteers wearing their volunteer shirts. So it appears that this shirt removal requirement only applied to me and my fat arms? Enter WTF Moment #2. If you are going to enforce a rule or standard, apply it to everyone regardless of who they are or whether they have volunteered in previous years. Not only was this unfair, but I felt slighted and disrespected after seeing all the photos.

Overall

WonderCon 2016

My experience volunteering for WonderCon 2016 was relatively good and straight-forward. The organization respected my time and the fact that I was giving it pretty much for free. The duties were a little less involved than I anticipated, but it was still a good opportunity to learn about certain operational aspects of the event. Volunteering seemed simple and mutually beneficial. I took away the importance of valuing volunteers’ time and appreciating their efforts.

Nerd HQ 2015

In my opinion, volunteering for Nerd HQ 2015 was exhausting. I felt like I volunteered for far too many hours and didn’t have any energy or time to enjoy everything else going on in that area, let alone the event. I will admit that this is partially my fault for not putting my foot down and walking away when the hours increased, but I’m dedicated and did not want to abandon my commitment like others did.

The other volunteers were mostly nice, and many of them were from different countries and cities across the world. I will say that there did seem to be an overall lack of respect among volunteers with some people ditching shifts to attend panels at Con and for whatever other reasons. There was a period of time where I started to think that maybe I was weird or crazy because most of the other volunteers seemed happy to volunteer for extensive lengths of time without breaks, but hey, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Fin

The comparison of both events is not apples to apples. For one, WonderCon was held in LA where I live. I didn’t have to make additional travel accommodations to volunteer for the event, but I did pay for parking each day. Nerd HQ is also a free event to attend, and in addition, it benefits a charitable organization. It required some serious travel expenses on my behalf, and this may be why I expected even more from the experience. WonderCon is also run by the same folks who manage San Diego Comic-Con, a massive, paid entry event. So I acknowledge that Nerd HQ doesn’t have the same resources as the Con giant.

As someone who has volunteered for various organizations and events and who deals with volunteerism as her profession, I have high expectations. As a volunteer, I expect the organization hosting the event to acknowledge and respect my time that I’m giving, and as part of the hosting organization, I give the same courtesy to our volunteers. Volunteer to volunteer, I respect others’ time and expect the same in return.

Despite what might seem like a particularly honest review, I definitely recommend volunteering for both WonderCon and Nerd HQ if you get the chance. The events are different and pose varied challenges and opportunities. I advise that you go into each experience with an open mind and flexible expectations. If you’re a Controlling Connie like me, maybe opt for the beach, brunch and mimosas instead.

 

Happy volunteering!

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