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Museum Design

Employee vs. Volunteer

By Leonard Pickel

Clients often ask me if they should bring in a non-profit organization and use their volunteers as actors in the attractions rather than paying to hire actors. My answer is always no! Before you start the angry email barrage let me explain.

Haunted Houses started out in the early 1970’s as fundraisers for non profit organizations. In those days, people would walk up to my for-profit haunt and ask, “What Charity does this event benefit?” Those days are long gone however, as are the days when a non-profit Haunt could expect enough donated materials to build the show and enough Public Service Announcements to advertise it. Today Haunts are just one of the thousands of open hands looking for free stuff in the name of charity, and the chances of getting much of anything for free are slim.

I have seen events use donations of a set amount or percentage of income (as low as 8% of gross) to a non profit given to a charity under the “partial proceeds” disclaimer. However, some cities require more than 50% of gross proceeds go to the non-profit before allowing the charity name to be on the event. OUCH!

As for labor, the old adage that “You get what you pay for!” was never more true than when it comes to volunteer actors. Volunteers are NOT free labor anyway, they have their own price! Each time you open your doors, there will be a different set of people, so the scare learning curve is repeated each night. They are not getting paid, so they have no incentive to stay a little later even if a bus load of customers just drove up at closing time, or even show up at all when there are other things going on like a cool Halloween party. Getting volunteers to even stay until closing is a trick all it’s own and getting enough of them to show up on Friday, Saturday or Halloween when you really need them is almost impossible! And how do you fire a volunteer when they really screw up or become a problem!

There are acceptions to every situation and I realize that there are many events that use volunteer actors to great success. Some of those actors are the best in the country and can run circles around the average paid creature! However, this quality level of volunteer acting staff takes years to build and hone before it becomes effective. The clients that I work with are just starting out and cannot create an experienced acting troupe in year one. They have to be able to hit the ground at full speed on opening day and volunteers is not the way to make that happen.

By the way, if you give volunteers food or perks like T-shirts for volunteering to work your haunt, in most states they are no longer considered volunteers, they are now employees according to the labor commission! Some Haunts have been forced to pay back wages for “Volunteer Labor,” as well as the payroll taxes due for the actor and the company.

Haunting is a business just like any other and employees are a necessary evil in any business. A haunted attraction is better off in the long run and the short run by biting the built and paying your acting staff.

Leonard Pickel is Owner of Hauntrepreneurs(R), a Dark Design and Consulting Firm, Founder of Haunted Attraction Magazine, Owner and Creator of the Haunted Attraction National Tradeshow and Convention, (HAuNTcon), Partner of Findahaunt.com Haunted Attraction locator. Leonard is available for consulting, Haunt design, permit drawings and lectures, (like the one above). Contact him at 972-951-5100 or via email at hauntcon@gmail.com