Inside Skepticon – Hand Over Your Money and the Dinosaurs Won’t Get Hurt

You can’t spell fundraising without the fun! And we can’t put on an amazebananas free-to-attend Skepticon without the fundraising. Almost all of the money needed for Skepticon comes from donations by wonderful people like you. We also pledge that every penny donated to the conference goes to putting on Skepticon. Raising that money is the responsibility of … The Fundraising Director!

Yeah, I know, not such a creative title, is it? Maybe we should change it to Dinosaur Feeding Director, or Dollar Floodgate Opener Director, or Money Coming At Us … Person. … Maybe we’ll just stick with Fundraising Director.

Anyway, at the beginning of the year we look at how much we’ll need to make Skepticon a reality (mostly based on what it cost the year before), and set a goal to raise that total. This year, we’re looking to raise $30,000. That’s a scary number for us. And it almost always comes down to the wire, or even a bit past the wire. We are usually still trying to meet that goal during the conference. The fingernails, they get bitten around Skepticon town.

About two thirds of that comes from attendee donations. These are usually made during registration, but for an extra special group of humans, donations are made every month. These are the the Dino Club members, they are the awesomest of the awesomest, and you can join them!

The rest of our funding comes from donations made by national sponsors (maybe 10%), fees paid for vendor tables (maybe another 10%), and the rest from merch sales at the conference.

And for our tenth Skepticon, (slogan: The Most Tenth Skepticon Evar!), we have an extra challenge. Yes, it just wasn’t enough that we need to raise funds for the conference this year. We’re also being sued by someone not worth mentioning here, and have to raise money for that, too! Whee. So, we would appreciate any donations you can make to our legal fund.

Here’s the deal with that – we refuse to use any of the conference funds on fighting this alleged individual’s worthless suit. Anything you donate to the conference goes to the conference. Anything donated to our legal fund goes to the legal fund. If there’s any leftover from the legal fund once we’ve won, it will roll into the conference fund.

Have I mentioned that our totally free conference needs your donations? I have? Oh good.

P.S. I know it’s really redundant on this post, but it’s super extra true. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

 

Inside Skepticon – I Like Big Bots!

In this modern age, everything depends on the interwebs, and Skepticon is no exception. We have a resident Tech wizard on the board, and his name is Bart! And do you know how we got Bart? He told Lauren that our website was a giant pile of [censored]. Yes, gentle people of all genders, this is how volunteer organizations work. Tell us that we have failed at something, and you too can be in charge of fixing it!

Bart was definitely up to the task, and now we have this awesome website you see all around you! (Note to readers on the Facebox® and Twittars®: we do not own these websites. There are some limits to the powers of Bart. Go to skepticon.org, that’s where the real magic happens.)

Most of the year the Tech role is pretty laid back. But during the conference, it is a very busy time. Bart is in charge of making all of the live video and audio work, including livestreaming and closed captioning. We also need to give a big shout out to Rob for literally putting his butt on the line every year doing the camera work. We salute your aching glutes, Rob!

In addition to the website and work at the conference, the Tech role is responsible for the safe and secure storage of our documents and passwords, and the configuration of team communications apps. We use Google Apps for our shared documents. Google gives us free access to the apps (nice) since we are a non-profit. Our passwords are stored and updated via an online password management system and/or a shoebox under Bart’s bed.

For talking at each other and sharing more gifs than you could ever imagine, we use Slack. And this is where the bots come in. The Skepticon slack channels are filled with all the great behind-the-scenes info we need to put on the show. To liven things up, Bart has added several chat bots. One, named Doug, is primarily there to post memes at anyone who says “don’t know” or “no idea”:

Troweling doggo has no idea what they're doing.

This doogo has no idea. Thanks, Doug.

Another bot is not interactive. It just posts “Cat Facts”, like:

Cat Fact 16: Similarly, the frequency of a domestic cat’s purr is the same at which muscles and bones repair themselves.

I don’t know what this even means. Muscles and bones repair themselves at a frequency? What sort of woo is this?

Cat Fact 34: In the 15th century, Pope Innocent VIII began ordering the killing of cats, pronouncing them demonic.

Lauren may agree with Pope Innie, but I had to respond to this outrage.

Human Fact 34: Despite numerous attempts to clean it dating back to the early 16th century, Pope Innocent VIII’s grave smells strongly of cat pee.

Take that, Cat Facts!

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 and giant robots possible! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – So, The Thing About Corporations

The thing about corporations is that they have certain rules, and even little non-profits based in Missouri and secretly run by dinosaurs need to follow them. The rules aren’t terribly burdensome. They’re there to protect shareholders, and consumers, and to ensure that someone can be found who is responsible for doing the adult things like responding to legal paperwork. Ahem.

Anyhoo, one of the things to do is have an Annual Meeting. At that meeting we have to do one very important thing. We have to elect our corporate officers. In order to keep operating, we need to have a President, Secretary, and Treasurer. Other offices are optional. Another rule is that the President cannot also be the Treasurer. This is to prevent certain types of funny business with the books.

The problems are that we have to do this by the end of June, we need people willing to take on the rather unglamorous work for free, and we have to have a quorum (at least half) of the board members present. You think that’s easy, right? That’s adorable! You’ve never worked for a tiny all-volunteer non-profit before, have you? What actually happens is that people have lives, and their lives are filled with jobs that actually pay them, medical issues, family members, and certain TV shows that have long-awaited premiers. So, we do eventually get the job done, but it usually takes a few postponements. You learn to roll with it.

But I know that what you’re really here for is the spine-tingling election results, so here you go:

  • President: Lauren Lane
  • Treasurer: Rebecca Hammond
  • Secretary: Rebecca Hammond
  • Vice President in Charge of Sno-Cones™: John Notadinosaur
  • Secretary without Portfolio: Tetra Pawed
  • Wizard in Chief: Tim
  • Conference Chair Alignment Engineer: “Nudge” Elderberry

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so help us make our bank account quorum! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – Meetings and Policies and 990s, Oh My!

… and that is how a new bylaw is made!

Oh, hello, I didn’t hear you come in. I was just teaching my kid all about the fascinating world of non-profit corporate governance. They’re asleep with joy!

Hey, this stuff is actually very important! If we don’t do the things that the state and federal government expect of a small non-profit secretly run by dinosaurs, they could take away our 501(c)(3) status, or suspend our corporation, or even make us extinct!

At Skepticon, this is the job of the Corporate role. They make sure that all the bureaucratic ‘i’s are dotted, the ‘t’s are crossed, and the spongiform zorblats have winky emoji in their upper left quadrants. The actual work will mostly be done by the corporate officers (President, Treasurer, and Vice President in Charge of Making Sno-Cones™), but the director in the Corporate role is the one responsible for checking that it gets done right, and on time.

The expectation is that the President of Skepticon will be the one to take on this role. So in other words, we make Lauren do the boring bits. What else is new?

Besides government paperwork, what needs to be done to have a functioning corporation? We’re not completely sure, ourselves, but this is what we do:

  • Hold regular and annual board meetings where a quorum must be sober at all times
  • Write down all the things that the board votes on doing
  • Make sure that someone actually does the things that the board votes to do
  • Check that we still have money. Do we still have money? Oh good.
  • Keep track of which sofa cushions all that money is hiding under
  • Post all the info on where the money came from and went to on the website
  • Make our vendors do right by us, and check that we do right by them
  • Buy event liability insurance, because stuff happens around dinosaurs
  • Produce the aforementioned Sno-Cones™

And that’s really about it. See, not so bad after all. And your reward for reading all the way to the bottom of this post? We’re giving you all free tickets to Skepticon 10! Just use code ZORBLATEMOJI17 when registering. See you all there!

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10, and all those glorious Sno-Cones™ possible! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – This One’s All About You!

At Skepticon we have a dedicated ally, a person whose job is specifically to advocate for the needs of the lovely humans who visit us. That’s you! You are coming to Skepticon this year, aren’t you? Of course you are, and we can’t wait to see you.

You’re quite a diverse bunch, and it’s the sworn duty of the person in the Attendees role to see to it that you have the bestest Skepticon ever. From the job description:

They will work to ensure that attendees are safe, and will feel that way. They will advocate for speaker and workshop choices of interest to, and representative of all communities Skepticon wants to attract. They will advocate for accommodations needed to allow all attendees to be comfortable and able to participate at Skepticon. To do all this, they will seek the advice of expert members of these communities, and produce and analyze surveys of attendees and potential attendees. Major projects for the Attendee role include maintaining the conduct policies and conducting surveys both before and after the event.

One question you might have here is just what “communities” of people do we want to encourage to come to Skepticon? To begin with, there’s Skeptics (undoubtedly), and Secularists (naturally), and Humanists (whole heartedly), and Freethinkers (dogmatically), and Atheists (faithfully), and Agnostics (indubitably). But this is just par for the course with skeptic events, and only covers the philosophical ground.

Skepticon realizes that people of many marginalized groups don’t attend skeptospheric cons for a variety of reasons. Maybe no one on stage looks like them, or speaks to their interests. Maybe they’re skeptical that the con will have their backs if they have a problem with a speaker or organizer or another attendee. Maybe a disability prevents them from attending, participating, or enjoying. Maybe they simply can’t afford the outrageous prices that cons charge just to get in the door.

Skepticon is committed to battling these obstacles and more in any way that we can. We look to represent the widest range of views and interests, and have people of all backgrounds on our stage. We also work to have:

  • Red lanyards for those who do not want their images shared publicly
  • Closed captioning or sign language interpreters for deaf and hearing-impaired Skepticoneers
  • Child care, either cooperatively among parents, or from an organization like Camp Quest
  • Fidgits available at the registration tables
  • Communication preference stickers
  • A food pantry so that no one has to go hungry to attend Skepticon
  • Ear plugs to help those sensitive to noise to come to Skeptiprom
  • Quiet rooms, for when it’s all just too much

And the best part is that Skepticon is FREE to attend! That’s a big relief to any budget.

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so it really is all about you! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – How Do We Look? Like a Million Bucks!

Last time we checked in at the Skepticon ranch (our brand is the Lazy X!), we were fighting over speaker choices. The next order of business is to pick a theme, and brainstorm ideas for fundraising.

Skepticon’s themes aren’t really about the talks. We don’t try to get speakers whose topics fit the theme, though if we do find someone who can talk about a related subject, it gives them a boost in priority. The Skepticon theme is all about  … the artwork! (Insert glitter flourish here.) Skepticon 7 had an outer space theme. SK8 had an 8-bit skater theme. S-K9 had a dogs and cats (9 lives!) theme.

So where does that leave us for SK10? You’ll have to wait for the answer when we unveil our new website look. But I can say that we’re not going with Skepticon Perfect 10, InTENse, ConTENder, Enligh10, TENtacle, Pre10tious, or TEN-Forward. Nor will we be X-ray, X-ylophone, or X-rated. But we think you’ll love the new look!

Once we had settled on a theme, we moved on to fundraising plans. These start early, but don’t tend to get much attention from our donors until June or July (or August…) Last year we pranked PZ Myers in April, and he was a good sport, of course. It was fun, but we didn’t raise much money from it. Then again, Skepticon has always chosen to have fun even if it doesn’t lead to tons of money, so expect to see more themed fundraisers this year! (And donate if you can!)

The two things that do encourage donations are the matching challenges and desperation. Skepticon is fortunate to have multiple generous donors who together put up several thousand dollars per year to use as matching funds. And every year (so far), our awesome attendees have come through for us. Not that we aren’t a big bundle of nerves waiting to see if we’re going to have a conference or anything.

If we’re still short of funds after exhausting our matching challenges, we unleash our secret weapon. That’s right, begging is not just for getting speakers. Early Skepticons featured a good amount of begging, and again our attendees stepped up their game to awesome. But things have actually gone pretty well for us in the past few years.

This brings us to the last piece of our fundraising plan, the Dino Club! Do you want to be amazebanannas just like the other Dino Clubbers? (Wait, that sounds bad. Make that “Dino Club-ateers”.) Sign up to send us your $ every month, and you can! You really have no idea how much help the Dino Club is for Skepticon. We could not do this without their support, and we are very grateful!

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the ones who look like a million bucks to us (or at least about 30 grand!) And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – What is Art? Here’s The Only Right Answer

Many have tried to define “art”…

“Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.” – David Hockney

“We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.” – Pablo Picasso

“Art for the SK10 program better be ready by October 10th!” – Lauren Lane

As usual, Lauren is closest to the mark. Skepticon has had an abundance of artists involved since its beginning, and artwork has played an important role in each Skepticon. So naturally Art is one of the twelve major divisions of Skepticon, Inc. From the job description:

The Art role is responsible for the production and maintenance of all assets of Skepticon that are primarily art-related, and for arranging the licensing of, or otherwise ensure the copyright clearance for all art used by Skepticon. … Each year will have its own theme, and the Art role will be responsible for ensuring a consistent look of all art produced. … They will also arrange for safe storage of physical and digital art assets.

You’ll note the copyright clearance part of the job. Yeah, we got bit by that one a couple years ago. The copyright for one of the headshots we used for a speaker turned out not to be held by that speaker. We were contacted by a company claiming to hold the copyright, and demanding over $700. We replaced the picture with one owned by the speaker, told them that we were an impoverished nonprofit, and asked for proof of copyright ownership. (Skeptics!) They countered with $100, but never produced any evidence of ownership, and we have not heard from them since.

The Art role has one of the most complex and demanding set of deadlines, and needs to work closely with all other Skepticon divisions to ensure that all projects are completed on time, and at the best rates.

The art assets of Skepticon include the themed graphics for the website and event signage, permanent signs meant to be used every year at the conference, the program, and the badges handed out to every attendee. Art needs to find the vendors with the best terms, and ensure that everything goes smoothly with production of printed materials.

Last year and this, we have been fortunate to have the help of the awesome team at Bear and Otter for most of our graphic design work.

So, what is Art? Art is a whole lot of work.

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the the truth we seek in beauty! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – Speaker Fight!

Second meeting of the year, and it’s time for the speaker fight! If you’re imagining PZ Myers punching out Matt Dillahunty, you’re seriously on the wrong track. (Plus you’ve clearly never met either of them. They’re super awesome, and would never hurt a fly. Okay, PZ might, but only in a professional capacity.)

Anyway, what I’m really saying is that we get together and argue over which speakers to invite this year. Everyone brings their list, and polishes their elevator pitches. (Or … just kinda wings it.) Typically, upwards of 100 names are thrown out, making this one of the longest meetings of the year.

Each organizer or volunteer starts with their top pick, and then we go around again and again until we run out of names, or until we get dizzy and fall off. Several of us may have independently come up with the same person, which boosts that speaker’s status. Many other picks get shot down quickly, and that can be rough on the one making the suggestion.

We include the nominations from attendees and past speakers, which we collect during the conference. (Drop some names in the suggestion box, please. We really do read them!)

All during the year we also get speaker recommendations in our emails, twitters, and faceboxes. Some are good, some are less helpful, and some are decidedly … odd. We just got another in that last category a few days ago. Claiming to have a speaker on a topic that skeptics have overlooked, the email contained a barrage of links to what appears to be another Sovereign Citizen variant.

So, yeah, we try to check out our speaker candidates before inviting them. We look for talks they have given in the past, to see if they know their stuff and can speak to a crowd. We look to see if their topics are things that we’re excited to hear about, that they contribute to a good variety of viewpoints, that their values don’t clash with ours, and that they like dinosaurs.

That last one is really the only deal breaker for us.

Back at the meeting, we decide which candidates to put ahead of others in the order that we extend invitations. This isn’t necessarily according to who we most want to appear. Some speakers book up far in advance, and we try to put them closer to the front so we have a better shot at them being available for Skepticon.

When it’s all over, Lauren takes it from there. She reaches out to the speakers in the order we decided, and gains their trust. Slowly, over the course of days or weeks, she lures them into our trap. Her patience is legendary, as is her tracking skill. If you receive an email from Lauren saying “Hey, wanna come speak at Skepticon? <3” your only hope is to say yes.

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the the ones we fight for! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – So Many Speakers, So Little Time

After Venue, the next Skepticon division to get busy at the beginning of the year is Speakers. We look through all of the suggestions made by attendees and previous speakers. (And we’re sorry, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is not going to come speak to us for free, ever. Especially not after what we call “The Time Cheese Incident”.)

We give all of the organizers and volunteers homework at the year’s first meeting to come back with an armload of speaker suggestions for the second meeting, and fight over which ones are the best. More about that next time. The first meeting also decides the balance between speakers, workshops, and panels, and that gives us a target number of speakers to invite.

What makes a great speaker for Skepticon? Experience and speaking skills are ideal, but we try to take some chances on newer speakers each year as well. Star power is not really a priority for us, but we do look for individuals that our attendees want to hear from. We want experts on their topics, and people committed to using good evidence and reason to come to their conclusions. Most importantly they need to be willing to work for high-fives, plus expenses. (Having no dinosaur allergies is a bonus.)

In recent years we’ve challenged ourselves to bring a wider range of viewpoints to our stage. (Once we even had a white Christian gentleman, and we let him use the bathrooms and everything.) We look for speakers from many different backgrounds, often giving us perspectives that we’ve never heard before. We figure, what good does it do be a conference where you hear the same things year after year?

The next step is to invite our top choices. We do aim high, and invite complete long shots, because sometimes it works out and we have someone we never thought we could get. Lauren has been doing this work for years now, and has her own secret formula for landing the most awesome people every year, and it’s totally not begging. (It’s begging.)

But beyond figuring out which speakers we want to invite onto our stage, what does the Speakers role involve? Let’s go to the actual, written job description:

The Speakers role is responsible for recruiting event speakers, arranging their travel and rooms, and seeing that they have everything (legal, ethical, and within budget) they need for a comfortable and successful Skepticon.

For main stage speakers, we arrange and pay for their travel and hotel rooms, feed them, water them, and expose them to sunlight regularly. We make sure that they get to and from the airport safely (except Rebecca Watson, who we seem to abandon in the airport on a regular basis – sorry Rebecca!). We see that their rooms are reserved and meet their needs, double-check their talk’s technical requirements, and make up a small gift bag of swag to say thank you.

Hey, what could go wrong? Oh, let me tell you. I’ve seen a lot, just in the few years I’ve been closely involved. No, I’m not going to give names, but we’ve dodged bullets and learned lessons aplenty. One speaker was becoming abusively demanding toward the organizers. We decided that we did not have time or energy enough to tolerate that and cut them loose. And we’re feeling very good about that decision – just because they’ve waived their honorarium doesn’t mean they can be abusive.

We learned a hard lesson when we didn’t take the time to check a late addition to the program, and things went decidedly wrong. We won’t let that happen again. A different speaker simply never showed up at the conference, and we had to scramble for a replacement. Fortunately they were okay, but our lesson was to check in with speakers sooner and more consistently.

Travel, especially by plane, can be surprisingly difficult to arrange. We need to have the legal names of our speakers in order to buy tickets, and some need to keep their legal identities private. That takes some care, and we haven’t been perfect at it. Flights into Springfield are limited, and often require connections at inconvenient times. We try to send our speakers several flight options to choose from, only for them to need a change at the last minute.

On a more ordinary note, several speaker have had to back out at or near the last moment due to illness, or other emergency. They’ve almost always given us as much notice as they could, and were very apologetic. This is something that we just do our best to allow for, and try to have backup speakers (who have been magnificent!)

The Speakers role is a major year-round effort, but it has been worth the work every time. Come see how it all turns out this year in November, won’t you?

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the the ones we want to hear from! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!

Inside Skepticon – First Meeting of the Year!

Subtitled: A Committee, a Plan, a Canal, Paeettimmoca!

Planning by committee can make it so hard to get what you hoped for in the end. On the other hand, doing it all yourself is a recipe for utter disaster. There’s just too much work, and too many skills needed to run a conference like Skepticon. And we have a bunch of incredible people with amazing skills. But everyone doing the work needs to know what everybody else is doing to make the pieces fit. So, we have meetings. Yay!

We have big boisterous meetings in February with lots of ideas. We have small, intimate meetings with bleary-eyed survivors in August. We have OMFSM-it’s-two-weeks-before-the-conference-and-we-have-to-finish-The-Things-™! meetings in late-early Octvember. We have meetings during the conference, and we get together for breakfast on the Monday after Skepticon to write down what went right, what went wrong, and how we can fix the latter, without screwing up the former, next year.

That first meeting of the year, though, is one to look forward to. Everyone is excited. Heck, everyone is there, and that’s enough of a miracle. Every idea is the bestest one we’ve ever heard of! Everything has that new Skepticon smell! Exclamation points are rampant! And this is the year that everything is going to go perfectly!

So what gets discussed at the first meeting? The division reports are pretty brief, since not much has happened other than signing the venue contract, so we quickly launch into the open discussion part of the meeting. We try to make the big structural decisions for the year. How many speakers do we want, versus how many panels or workshops? What topics do we think are going to be interesting nine months from now? How can we improve our community activities? Who has theme ideas? And everyone gets homework for next meeting.

I can’t tell you how we answered these questions, because spoilers. But we have a plan, and it’s the bestest evar, and you will be very excited! Save the dates November 10th – 12th for us.

P.S. Your donations are what make Skepticon 10 possible, so you are the bestest evar, too! And if you really want to lighten our stress levels, please donate to our legal defense fund!