wombat_socho (wombat_socho) wrote,

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MS found on a hard drive (Post 2 of 2)

I was originally going to distribute this to the ATC Board as an envoi of sorts when I left in 2007, but I let myself get talked out of it. Enough time has passed since then that I doubt anyone will be offended by what I had to say, and if so, too damn bad. Attentive readers will note that there are close similarities in a number of places to the "Anime Detour Philosophy" post, previous. This is not accidental.

This is how the greasy organizational stuff works, or at least how the underlying philosophy works. Nobody likes it, but at least some people need to understand it or else everything comes to a grinding halt amidst recriminations and smoking ruin. Your mileage may vary, but I'm a student of history and not an optimist by any stretch of the imagination. Doom.

We do not have the time or the patience to stand around (or even sit around) while everyone expresses their opinion on every single aspect of the convention. I intentionally designed the structure of Anime Detour so that the Chairman would be Sole Rightful Autocrat under the supervision of the Board, which could sack him if he showed too much of a tendency to piss people off, had the management skills of a retarded sponge, or was otherwise incapable of getting the job done. What the Chairman says goes, until he steps down or the Board fires him.
That having been said, the Chairman needs to be aware that it's dumb to tell people to do things they obviously aren't going to do. There has to be delegation of authority to the department heads so that they and their minions can get the work done, because there is not enough time in a 24-hour day for the Chairman to supervise everything. Also, a Chairman who thinks he knows everything about running a convention is a dangerous idiot, because he will give in to the temptation to micromanage, and nothing annoys staff faster than a chairman who will not get out of the way and let them work. The Chairman must trust his department heads to know their jobs, but at the same time he must watch them to make sure they do. If they're incompetent, they have to go - friendships and family ties be damned. The Chairman's main responsibility is to the membership, who deserve a convention run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and if that requires firing people who can't do the jobs they volunteered to do, so be it. If a chairman is not good at developing talent, this is not a firing offense but people should be aware of it and be sure to do staff development on their own so that rough unpolished rookies can become shining stars and not roadkill.
As a corollary, department heads should deal with their own internal problems. If the Chairman has to reach down into a department and fire a staffer, the department head isn't doing his job and should at the very least be taken aside and counseled. Staff can always complain to the chairman that they weren't treated fairly, but the onus is on them to prove they aren't fuckups - preferably in another department.
There is no shame in staff wanting to work in different departments from year to year or even time-sharing between different departments in the same year. As long as the relevant department heads know what's going on and are sure this isn't being used as a license to skate, it's all good.

In the beginning, the staff was made up of whoever didn't run away fast enough. Friends, family, casual acquaintances all found themselves being invited to work on convention staff, with the sole criterion being availability and some interest in the convention itself. Friends of friends, distant relatives, and willing strangers got added to the mix, and after four years we have a staff that covers most of the functions necessary to run the convention. Training tends to be minimal, hurried, and mostly conducted in the hands-on or "cat in the bathtub" method, hopefully with less screaming and clawing.
The problem with this is that it leads to unnecessary stress and conflicts within the staff as half-trained individuals rise to positions of power on staff and run things "the way they've always been done" without being open to other, more effective and efficient ways of doing things. This is why Detour insisted on having set procedures for all departments - if an asteroid falls on the Registration staff, the chairman should be able to pull a few staff members and a bunch of volunteers together, have them read over the procedures, and then turn them loose. Of course such apocalyptic scenarios rarely happen, but there is turnover on staff and having a FAQ or department policy (preferably both) for new people to read at their leisure between meetings is ten times better than having some angry, tense staffer yelling instructions while stuff is hitting the fan.
The ideal state of convention staff would be to have department heads who have been doing their jobs for four/five years and who can delegate for 6-8 hours at a time to sub-heads so they can take time off and enjoy the convention or go have a quiet dinner with their SO. The sub-heads would have a little less experience but be ready and able to step in if the department head is unable to continue because of conflicts with the real job or school or whatever. Unfortunately, the ideal state usually occurs right before the convention melts down on a scale not seen since the destruction of Atlantis, so you have to make do with the people you have. Those people need to be ready to go from the start or be quick studies, because there isn't a lot of time for training in the normal course of events. If you have the time, patience and talent to mentor people so that they can develop into the staff members you want them to be, that's great, but in experience most fans (whether anime, SF, costumers, whatever) tend to be damaged when it comes to social relationships and not terribly good at giving or receiving that sort of thing. (E.g., they take praise badly and criticism worse. Ecce homo.)

So you fall back on what works, and what works is the feudal method described above. In order to build a lasting organization, though, you need to prepare the revolution. This is accomplished by using your volunteers as a farm team for aspiring staff. Now, not all of your volunteers may want to be on staff, and some of them can't be on staff because they're too young. Staff fall into three categories: they're either handling the money, supervising volunteers, or serving as the public face of the convention. If they aren't doing at least one of those three things, they don't need to be on staff. Be hardnosed about this. If the Chairman's girlfriend is on staff but has no visible function, the department heads and/or the Board should be making ominous growling noises until he comes to his senses and relegates her to the volunteer ranks.
After one or two conventions, volunteers will probably know enough about one or more departments to come on to staff. Staff will also have seen them enough to know whether whatever psychological damage they may have is going to screw things up. For example, somebody that has a history of abusive relationships should not be on the security staff, especially if their former GF is on staff or is a long-time member of the convention. This is less of an issue for departments like Consuite or Tech, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. After two or three years, you should have a large enough pool of experienced volunteers to start allowing/encouraging staff to take a year off. Once they do this, they should be discouraged from back-seat driving, and any attempts to do so should be promptly squashed. Offering unsolicited advice once is annoying enough; offering it twice ought to get you a tap on the shoulder and some harsh words from the chairman. Doing it three times after having been warned once justifies a boot party.
Volunteers and staff need to be appreciated. This hippie-era communitarian ideal where everyone works selflessly for the greater good of the convention died with the Carter Administration (that would be in 1980, for those of you who went to public schools) but it's still stumbling around fandom like a zombie that hasn't been put down properly. Shoot it. Shoot it in the head. You need to show your volunteers (and staff) that you do appreciate what they're doing, and you're willing to provide some solid proof of that in the way of food & drink, if nothing else. Providing a recharge room/volunteer con suite can be viewed as bribery if you're cynical, or as a means of expressing gratitude for the time volunteers put in, if you're not. Either way, it lets volunteers and staff know they're appreciated, gives them a chance to mix with the guests and sponsors, and allows us to hang out with our fellow hard-working fans away from the crowd. As I've said probably way too often since the beginning of this madness, "We can't afford to pay you for all you do; the least we can do is feed you once in a while." This same philosophy is behind the volunteer prizes, The Saturday Night (Sandwich) Massacre, the Dead Dog's Breakfast, and other such food-related deals. Besides, we're pack animals. We like to eat together. ^_^
"Doesn't this create two classes of fans?" Yes. Yes it does. If you're a radical egalitarian and have a problem with that, you're the one with the problem. You can go to hell, or to ACen for all I care. We believe that we provide enough amenities for the members and work hard enough doing so that we deserve better treatment than the average member who shows up and contributes nothing to the convention except their money and their compliance with our rules. On the other hand, if things get to the point where you're offering free memberships and free hotel rooms for the weekend to staff, things have gone way too far and need to be reined in. Free memberships violate the "Everybody pays, everybody fights" rule, and paying for the personal space of staff smells like more of the same. Does this conflict with the practice of paying for crash space at AI and Convergence? No, because we're packing people into that crash space instead of just footing the tab for someone's hotel room, and part of that space is used to throw the room party anyway.

Anime Detour has no intention of becoming the next ACen/Otakon/AX. We have always wanted to be "a weekend anime party for us and a few thousand of our closest friends," if you define few as maxing out around 3000. One of the things I did while organizing ATC was dig into the history of Minicon, which was the big SF convention in these parts until they got a bad case of rectocranial inversion in 1998 and basically invited everyone who wasn't an old-school literary SF fan to fuck off and stay home. As you might expect, their membership plunged from 3500 or so in '98 to around 400 a couple of years ago; in fact the decline was a lot more sudden than that. Looking around SF fandom, I noticed that a lot of the big regional conventions that were Minicon's peers (Balticon, Disclave, and Boskone, to name just three) went through similar convulsions for similar reasons. Now, granted that Detour is a lot more streamlined than Minicon or its successor, CONvergence, since we don't do a lot of the things they do, it's still a hell of a lot of work to put together a convention for 2500 people, and it'll be even more work if we add another thousand members to the mix. We'll need more of everything - more programming, more video rooms, more space for gaming, and more people to run all of those things.
Do we really want to do that? It's a good question. Personally, I'm against it for a number of reasons, mainly operational. With a larger staff and a larger membership comes the increased possibility of staff meltdown, since it becomes harder to pull people out and give them a break. Paradoxically, it also becomes harder to recruit staff and volunteers, since there's the tendency to assume that "someone else" will do it. A larger staff also makes it harder for everyone to know everyone else, and increases the chance of damaging factionalism, which is one of the side-effects of the feudal staff structure. As I say, these are organizational concerns. On the other hand, a larger convention would allow us to attract guests that we previously had no real chance with, such as Japanese voice actresses and directors. On the gripping hand, how many of our members would really enjoy having such guests? Our former security chief and Lord God MC Josh once expressed the opinion that since few of our members are able to carry on a conversation in Japanese, and not many guests from Japan are similarly competent in English, it would be a waste of time and money. It's a valid point. Similarly, inviting J-pop bands and singers to the convention as guests opens up other cans of worms that staff has been unwilling to deal with; this is not a fandom we wish to encourage.
One of the alternatives we might wish to work toward was one suggested by Victor Raymond for Minicon in the heat of the HRMP Wars ten years ago. He suggested that Minicon divide itself into a conventional SF convention and an "alternative lifestyles" convention, which would allow people to choose up sides, so to speak, and attend the convention they felt most comfortable at. (Ironically, while Victor's proposal wound up rejected by the MNSTF Board, it was implemented by others as CONvergence and Marscon proceeded to draw all the local fans upset with Minicon's reductionist approach.) We don't actually have a large alternative lifestyles contingent at Detour, but we might want to encourage smaller regional anime conventions in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota. There's no reason not to hold conventions in Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, to say nothing of Anoka; Detour may also want to encourage SogenCon. It's entirely possible that some fans will find the smaller cons to be a more friendly environment and a better deal, and by the same token the local conventions could develop into unique little parties with their own unique personalities. It's a good thing! "Let a thousand flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." (Mao Tse-tung)

This unofficial policy means that everyone on staff must pay for their membership, while every officer and director of ATC must hold a staff position with Anime Detour. The first half of the policy is a bulwark against comp memberships of any kind: it's a lot easier to deny some whiny journalist wannabe or whinging parent a free pass when you know you laid down 25, 30 maybe 40 of your own hard-earned simoleons to buy yours. The convention does occasionally hand out comps, but usually only in recognition of service far above and beyond the call of duty (to say nothing of sanity), e.g. Jayson and Nathan the first year. The second half of the policy is insurance against the Board and the staff drifting away from each other, as MNSTF and the Minicon committee eventually did to the detriment of both. While this does occasionally tempt the Board into micromanagement, it's a small price to pay to avoid long-term institutional disaster. Anyone who doesn't think the board losing touch with the staff is a Bad Idea should be locked in a room with the MNSTF Board minutes from the year the HRMP Wars broke out and not let out until they can explain in their own words what happens when separation occurs. It makes hostile divorces look like a Good Thing by comparison. I think it would be an excellent idea for the Board to codify this policy as part of the bylaws.
I think it would also be a good idea to put in the bylaws the current unofficial policy that prohibits the AD chairman from serving as either President or Treasurer of ATC. It's a little too much power for one person to have, but if it's not in the bylaws it'll rear its ugly head again sooner or later.

Anime Detour began as the love child of Anime Iowa and CONvergence, midwifed by a couple of guys who got tired of driving to Chicago and Cedar Rapids to get their anime fandom fix. Detour has developed with shocking speed into the largest fan-run convention in the Midwest. We dance, but shun the allure of live J-pop bands and divas alike; we're family-friendly, but tolerate crossplay and yaoi panels. We have always been brutally honest with ourselves and our members, with the emphasis on the "brutal", because unfortunately that gets peoples' attention faster than asking nicely. ("You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word." - Jesse James)
I have been closely involved with Detour since we first gathered at MCAD to start planning the 2004 convention, and I have helped bring it to the point where we need to think seriously about where we are going as a convention and an organization. I have made my share of mistakes over the past four years and owned up to them, and I have made hard decisions to my own detriment because it was my job to make those decisions. I want to see Anime Detour continue successfully and spawn new conventions, because I believe that otherwise it will grow until it either collapses under its own weight, as so many conventions have before it, or becomes a professionally-run convention that no longer has room for joking and horseplay and staff HALO sessions on the weekends. I strongly believe that we have an obligation to our members to keep Anime Detour as small and friendly as we can, even if that means imposing a membership cap and getting a little picky about who we let in. That's a question that the Board needs to address and continually revisit, since I will not always be around to serve as the resident ill-tempered burrowing maruspial.

Obviously changes have occurred since I left. It's y'alls' convention now, and I really have nothing to say about how it's run these days. I'm also not inclined to sit back and snipe from 1100 miles away based on hearsay and rumor; in fact, I may not even be there this coming year if the job situation doesn't improve. Enjoy, or not, an it please ye.
Tags: anime detour
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