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Shoot for the stars, but realize it takes time to reach them


By JT Eberhard

Conferences have become a huge part of this movement.  The chance to gather with like-minded people and to meet your atheist heroes is often worth traipsing across the country.  They are a huge undertaking to organize, but there can be no doubt that these events leave people inspired and remind them that we’re in this with a community that spans the country, not just as individual activists in our own local spots.

Skepticon has become one of the biggest atheist events in the world.  Every year well over a thousand people make the trip to Springfield, Missouri to attend.  Aside from its size, the event bears some distinctions from other events that has made it a bit of a curiosity.  One way it differs from other conferences is that it is run by a student group rather than an organization.  Another is that entry to the event is free. 

Many groups are now starting to run events based on the Skepticon model.  Some examples include Reasonfest, which is put on by the Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics; the North Texas Secular Student Convention, organized by the Secular Students at Collin College and Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists at UT Dallas; and the Madison Freethought Festival by the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  All of these events were tremendous successes, but in every case the organizers believed, at least for some amount of time, that they had failed. 

The question was always the same: where were the crowds of thousands?

At the inaugural North Texas Secular Student Convention the crowd totaled 250.  In Reasonfest’s second year the event saw a little over 400 attendees.  Freethought Festival was one of the most well-organized events the SSA had ever seen and featured a huge, star-studded lineup.  The event drew a crowd of 650.
So why aren’t these events seeing the same success as Skepticon?  We’ve heard that question from organizers at all of them and the answer is very simple:

They are doing as well as Skepticon.

In 2012, Skepticon will run for the fifth time and projects a crowd of over 1,500.  But Skepticon I was a different story.
•    Skepticon I: 250
•    Skepticon II: 400
•    Skepticon III:  800 at peak, about 1,000 overall
•    Skepticon IV:  1,250

If you are running a first-time event, you shouldn’t compare your first year to Skepticon’s fifth. 

By the realistic standard of comparing their first year’s numbers to Skepticon’s first year, it’s plain to see that these events, at minimum, are Skepticon’s equal.  In the case of the Madison Freethought Festival, they were even better!
Conferences that are better-established draw bigger crowds, which means that even for Skepticon, drawing crowds in the thousands takes years of organizing and learning from past mistakes. 

But, as the SSA has seen, many groups are already up to that task.  If you and a group of rambunctious volunteers want to assume the project of putting on a conference, then we are ready to lend our expertise and resources.  Just remember that reaching the stars takes time, and that even the longest journey begins with a single step.

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