Header image: “Japanese Maple” by ozma.
CC BYAnother year, another World Fantasy Convention controversy.
- 2011: A creeper and accessibility issues
- 2012: Accessibility issues
- 2013: Accessibility and harassment issues as well as general condescension by the con runners towards the membership
- 2014: went pretty smoothly probably because Peggy Rae Sapienza was at the helm (pour one out)
- 2015: Accessibility issues
- 2016: The program (screencap)–because at this point, this is the only thing we know about the convention. Sarah Pinsker tweeted about her efforts to change the program before it became public.
Including this year, five of the last six World Fantasy Conventions have had significant problems. These problems center around equal access to facilities and freedom from harassment. Even this year’s program: the original program, and the one that was initially published had a panel about the “perverse allure of freaks” and a “joke” about “Spicy Oriental Zeppelins”–both of which are actively hurtful to some of the very people who would like to attend WFC. The Board refused to remove the person responsible for this program–Darrell Schweitzer–even though he has proven that he is unfit for the position because it is supposedly too late to change things. Guess what? It’s not.
The reality is this: for years the real convention happens in the bar. People are, essentially, paying hundreds of dollars for a badge and hotel room so they can participate in bar con. I’ve done it myself.
Despite these problems and the subsequent erosion of their brand, the organization which awards the franchise for the annual convention is either unable or unwilling to make the necessary organizational changes (screencap).
Unable because they do not appear to be incorporated as a legal entity and it is therefore possible that current board members could be held personally liable. By the current Chair’s admission, they do not have bylaws or written procedures.
Unwilling because until his untimely death this past January, David Hartwell seems to have made all the decisions and the Board has made the choice to use his death to absolve themselves of responsibility in light of this year’s issues.
I don’t see the World Fantasy Convention continuing in its current state beyond 2018 without substantial and significant changes to the parent organization.
Some of these changes will cost money. This is not as insurmountable as the Board claims. It is documented that local organizations who put on WFC tend to make a healthy profit.
Let’s look at the numbers. The average membership costs $225 and is capped at 950 members giving us estimated gross revenues of $200,000 per year. After expenses, here are the surpluses racked up by three local organizations:
- 2003: WSFA made around $40,000.
- 2007: FACT made around $20,000.
- 2009: SFSFC made around $10,000.
- 2014: BWAWA made around $60,000. This one’s a little complicated, as you need to look at both the 2013 and 2014 IRS filings and deduct items related to the 2017 bid.
And those are just the financial documents I could find.
I am sure there have been organizations that have lost money putting on a WFC, but considering that average gross revenues are around $200,000 per year, it seems unlikely to have been a problem in the last decade or so.
Anecdotally speaking, there was at least one year in which the local organization wanted to lower membership rates and the Board would not allow them (despite supposedly not having any ability to influence the local organizers–how does this work, again?).
So with all this background in mind, I have a few concrete and actionable steps that the Board can take to contain the damage and give them some breathing space while they rebuild their organization properly.
Required Accessibility and Codes of Conduct
These are no longer optional for conventions, particularly not ones that bill themselves as professional development and networking opportunities.
The Board should work with experts in these two areas–there are a number of them in the speculative fiction community–to develop standard policies whose use will be required by all conventions, effective immediately.
If local laws are more stringent, then local laws supercede these policies, however this must be documented in writing and approved by the Board well in advance of the convention and, ideally, at the time the bid is awarded.
Historically, communication from the WFC Board to the public and from the local organizing conventions have been, shall we say, less than optimal.
Members and prospective members of each WFC should know who is running each and every convention. This information should be easily located on each convention’s website. There should be a working email address associated with each individual or department. People should know who they are contacting.
This goes the same for the Board. Each Board member should have an email account associated with the WFC domain–these can be set to auto-forward to the member’s regular email address to minimize difficulties in juggling multiple email accounts. The current situation is a single email address for all nineteen individuals on the board and this is not acceptable.
Incorporation as a 501(c)3
It boggles the mind that the World Fantasy parent organization has been operating as an unincorporated entity for 40 years.
This must change.
There are a lot of steps to organizing as a 501(c)3 organization but they are not insurmountable.
As it stands right now, it appears that there is no legal entity to protect the members of the Board from potential lawsuits or other liabilities that may come their way–especially based on their track record of meddling with conventions behind the scenes while claiming in public to have no control.
“But there’s no money!” cries the Board.
Getting money is easy: require local organizers to pay a franchise fee from gross receipts at the end of the convention. The speculative fiction community is large, I am sure there are more than a handful of reliable attorneys and CPAs who would be willing to charge a friends and family rate to make sure that everything is set up properly.
And one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the composition of the Board.
There are nineteen Board members as of this writing. Three of them are permanent members and there are two ex officio members. The others are either past or current chairs of the local organizations. It’s not clear who is responsible for which tasks within the parent organization and how long some non-permanent members have been on the Board. The website clearly states that chairs of past conventions can stay on the Board indefinitely as long as they still have an interest.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where things get tangled. See, one of the things you have to do to incorporate as a 501(c)3 is have all Board members sign a document stating that they do not have a conflict of interest–and the mere fact that your Board is full of people whose organizations have profited from the convention that the Board awards gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.
So if a 501(c)3 is not possible, then I would recommend an LLC–which is even easier and more inexpensive to set up.
The Board needs to take specific and actionable steps to modernize and professionalize their organization. Their other option is to cease operations. There are other organizations who can provide professional development and opportunities to writers and editors in the field. There is no need for writers and publishers to continue to subsidize willfully incompetent local organizations through membership fees.
The Board must change its culture from one where they receive the glory while “officially” doing very little of the work to one where they are active stakeholders in the ongoing health and well-being of the World Fantasy Convention.
2 responses to Three Easy Steps to Fix the World Fantasy Convention
Because it is trade meeting rather than an educational meeting, they might have problems going 501(c)3. And both Worldcon and Westercon are NOT 501(c)3, they are unregistered organizations. The groups that win the bids need to be 501(c)3, but the parent groups are not. They do have extensive Rules and ByLaws and the main meetings (which are held at conventions) are open to the members.
501(c)3 does not make an organization transparent. The attitude of the set up and the Board make it transparent. Worldcon and Westercon were set up by the fans for the fans. World Fantasy was set up by a closely held Board for an educational trade show. So, although it sort of looks like a fan run convention, it really isn’t.
And SFSFC has Anti Harassment policies that we apply to all our conventions.
Hi Lisa, thanks for commenting. Per this post at Facebook you are not correct in your statement that the local orgs must be 501(c)3: “The Board has no preferred legal structure for a convention: corporation (for-profit or non-profit) partnership, sole proprietorship, etc. are all valid structures.”
As for Worldcon vs WFC, they are, as you pointed out, structured very differently. I do believe some sort of incorporation would be to their benefit and help ensure long-term stability. The current chair of the convention said this in the the Facebook post I linked: “By choice, the founders of WFC had never established bylaws or a codified structure that lived outside of their heads…” I took that at face value. If you know of any bylaws or other rules that were being followed on a consistent basis, I would like to see them. Do you have copies?
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