Ask Mandisa 47 – Timing Secular Conference Outreach

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Mandisa Thomas, a native of New York City, is the founder and President of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Although never formally indoctrinated into belief, Mandisa was heavily exposed to Christianity, Black Nationalism, and Islam. As a child she loved reading, and enjoyed various tales of Gods from different cultures, including Greek and Ghanaian. “Through reading these stories and being taught about other cultures at an early age, I quickly noticed that there were similarities and differences between those deities and the God of the Christian Bible. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this God so special that he warrants such prevalence today,” she recalls.

Mandisa has many media appearances to her credit, including CBS Sunday MorningCNN.com, and Playboy, The Humanist, and JET magazines. She has been a guest on podcasts such as The Humanist Hour and Ask an Atheist, as well as the documentaries Contradiction and My Week in Atheism. Mandisa currently serves on the Board for American Atheists and the American Humanist Association, and previously for Foundation Beyond Belief, the 2016 Reason Rally Coalition, and the Secular Coalition for America. She is also an active speaker and has presented at conferences/conventions for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Student Alliance, and many others.

In 2019, Mandisa was the recipient of the Secular Student Alliance’s Backbone Award and named the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s Freethought Heroine. She was also the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association’s Person of the Year 2018.

As the president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc., Mandisa encourages more Blacks to come out and stand strong with their nonbelief in the face of such strong religious overtones.

“The more we make our presence known, the better our chances of working together to turn around some of the disparities we face. We are NOT alone.”

Here, we talk about the timings of outreach for running secular conferences in fast and slow ways.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: There are times to reach out fast and slow with conferences. What are some considerations here?

Mandisa Thomas: It depends on the time frame of each event, and also when you start advertising and promoting. There are some events that launch a few months before the date. Others, like the ones that I plan, tend to be approx. about a year in advance. There’s usually plenty of time to contact folks, and to follow up if you receive no response. For a shorter time frame, say 3 to 6 months, it’s good to follow up within the initial 2 to 3 weeks. With shorter term planned events, the details should be firmly in place. And one should request a 24 to 48-hour response time for speakers, volunteers and exhibitors.  If the event is a further out – a year, for example, you can probably give yourself about 2 to 3 months before reaching out again. There is still enough flexibility in the planning phase at that point, and changes can be made with fewer penalties if done well in advance. And as a general rule, quicker response times can show commitment and efficiency. Another major factor is how quickly one works. I use myself as an example all the time. I tend to have a million things going on at once, which can often trigger anxiety –  something that admittedly I struggle with. However, I set the expectation that a good planner, at least one who has entry-level skills, should be following up 2 to 3 weeks after initial contact. There should be a rapid turnaround time for the first month or two, especially with the event planned further out. Afterwards, there can be some leeway with communication until the date (or dates) come closer.

Jacobsen: If someone was expecting you to reach out to them again, and if someone was angry when you reached out when reaching out much later when reaching out past expected, how do you mediate the emotions there and manage that difficult reaction?

Thomas: That is an interesting one. If you are a speaker, and we need information, sometimes, one or both parties may drop the ball. I always try to start with an apology, and err in favour of the invited. I always try to clarify whether I am going to be the one to follow up or if they should get back to me within a certain time. In many cases, it can be both.

Of course, as being human beings, we do not always read things in detail. However, it is always good to try and review all correspondence to see who was supposed to follow up with whom, while not placing blame.

Once you point the finger, it never goes well [Laughing]. As the organizer, though, it is good to put your best foot forward and say, “I will review my notes. I will make sure that I will respond in a more timely manner,” just to take that pressure off.

If something falls through the cracks, then that is not the fault of the person. If it is an attendee or a vendor, then, if they want your business, they should be following up with you, and not the other way around. The expectation is that the person who wants the business should respond in a certain time period.

It is always formalities, “My apologies…. Such and such a thing happened,” if some tensions are there. You are acknowledging that something has faltered, and that hopefully, we can resolve the issue and move forward.

Jacobsen: What about a case, more difficult, of further belligerence and forfeiting commitment to the organization and just want to vent now? Something akin to a soliloquy argument.

Thomas: No one should be subjected to unreasonably rude, or even abusive behaviour, especially if apologies and resolutions have already been introduced. There are limits. 

You can always try to make things right. And hopefully, that will move the conversation forward and alleviate any tensions. But if that is not the case, and if the person is obstinate, then it might be just best to sever that relationship and then just move on to another vendor, speaker, or if another person has paid a certain amount of money for attendance – depending on the terms – then you can issue a refund and say, “Have a nice day.”

No one should have to endure abuse for someone being angry. Perhaps one can always ask, “Why don’t we come back to this another day? When things have calmed down.” That is not always realistic in the business world [Laughing]. But it is always best to try to resolve these things as quickly as possible and then hopefully maintain a positive working relationship.

Jacobsen: I am reminded of one of your topics. It was either titled or quoted, ‘Everyone ain’t goin’ to make it.’

Thomas: That’s correct [Laughing].

Jacobsen: That applies to some of our conversations including this one.

Thomas: That’s true. In my professional capacity, I have always found that it is best to err on the side of caution regarding what is best for all parties. If there is a way to resolve conflicts amicably, then that’s always best. However, it is not always possible. We should be prepared to say, “Hey, this is not something that I will or can deal with.” Some people think that you should just take whatever they give you. It is not only unfair, again it is abusive. 

No one in a service capacity should have to endure abuse by a customer, boss or other authority. Yes, there are some folks who cannot resolve things in an amicable manner. In those cases, you may have to simply end things amicably, yet immediately. It is possible to keep one’s peace of mind in the process of working on intense projects – that’s what I try to remind myself.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mandisa.

Thomas: Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Mandisa Thomas.

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