Let There Be Cake: An Interview with Maggie Ardiente

Today the American Humanist Association bids a fond farewell to its longtime development and communications director, Maggie Ardiente.

TheHumanist.com: So, you’re leaving the American Humanist Association after twelve years. Tell us a bit about the roles you’ve played at the AHA.

Maggie Ardiente: After I graduated from James Madison University (Harrisonburg, Virginia), I moved to Washington, DC, and immediately began an editorial internship with the Humanist magazine under the direction of longtime editor Fred Edwords. A couple of months later, the previous development assistant was planning to leave her position to start law school, and I jumped at the opportunity to work for the AHA full time. Tony Hileman (then the executive director of AHA) hired me and I worked as his executive assistant in addition to fundraising. When Roy Speckhardt became the executive director, I started building my skills, climbing up the ladder as we expanded our direct-mail and major donor program that brought in thousands of new members. After helping to achieve a million-dollar matching grant in 2008 (supported by Lou Appignani, a longtime supporter of AHA), I became the development director, and the doubling of our budget allowed us to expand not just the fundraising department but our legal, legislative, and grassroots work. As the years went by I started taking on even more roles: managing the annual conference, directing the communications department, and editing the weekly e-zine Humanist Network News (now TheHumanist.com). No good deed goes unpunished! But in all seriousness, it’s been great building new skills and helping AHA however I could.

TheHumanist.com: How do you think the organization has changed in the time you’ve been there?

Ardiente: It’s truly amazing how much the American Humanist Association has grown. When I first started, the AHA had only recently started building its direct-mail and major donor programs, which are critical for long-term sustainability. I remember participating in coalition meetings on Capitol Hill during my first year at the AHA, and our fellow progressive organizations didn’t know what humanism was. So much has changed since then. More and more people not only know what humanism is, but we’re gaining respect and recognition from our allies in Washington, DC.

TheHumanist.com: How has organized humanism grown/changed?

Ardiente: AHA’s focus, which used to be mostly academic and centered on developing the humanist philosophy, is now more about political activism and engagement. This was an excellent move on the part of the AHA board of directors. Organized humanism is a lot more professional, too, and I attribute that to the AHA’s move to Washington, DC, in 2001. This not only allowed the organization to better see what other nonprofits were doing, but also attracted experts in the fields of nonprofit management, communications, fundraising, and field organizing.

TheHumanist.com: What are some favorite memories of your time at the AHA? Any favorite media hits, for example? Conference memories, awardee speeches?

Ardiente: So many to choose from! I have a few favorite conference memories, but the best was having a beer with Bill Nye (I grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy) when he received the 2011 Humanist of the Year award. He was incredulous that I didn’t know what a slide rule was, so he proceeded to explain it to me using his iPhone. I’ll never forget the time I was on Fox News, mostly because they caked me with makeup and gave me big hair—they called it the “Fox News look”! And I’d say the most inspirational speech I got to hear was Rep. Pete Stark’s Humanist of the Year speech in 2008. When he came out as a humanist I thought to myself, “humanism has arrived.” I felt immense pride at the work AHA had accomplished so far, and I knew we had nowhere else to go but up.

TheHumanist.com: The 76th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association is coming up next month, an event you’ve organized for many years. Will you be attending as a guest?

Ardiente: Yes, for the first time I’ll get to attend an AHA conference as a real participant! Running the annual conference is tough work, and I often had to miss plenary sessions that I really wanted to attend to keep everything running smoothly behind the scenes. This time I’ll actually get to listen to the speakers, which I’m really looking forward to. And it will be nice to see many of our longtime members and conference-goers to say farewell in person.

TheHumanist.com: If you could have dinner with any three humanist types, living or dead, who would it be?

Ardiente: I’m so glad I get to answer this question! (I’ve been at AHA for so long, I never got to do TheHumanist.com’s “Meet the Staff” feature!) Definitely Neil deGrasse Tyson (I met him briefly at the AHA’s 2009 conference, but missed the opportunity to actually hear him speak because I was working the registration table!), Alice Walker (The Color Purple is one of my favorite books), and Ricky Gervais (one of the funniest people on the planet who also wrote one of my favorite movies, The Invention of Lying).

TheHumanist.com: We here at the Humanist.com and the AHA will miss you terribly. Not only are you a crazy-hard worker but you’re very good at what you do and a fun person to boot. What advice do you have for your successor?

Ardiente: Aw, shucks! I’ll definitely miss working at the AHA too and all the great people I’ve had the opportunity to meet. My advice for my successor, and really anyone who is interested in working for the secular movement, is to anticipate the organization’s needs, take advantage of every opportunity to promote the organization’s work, and seek help to overcome challenges. Nonprofit work is tough work, but it can be incredibly rewarding when you see people giving their hard-earned money to support an organization that represents their values. It’s important for all of us to remember that our work matters to thousands of people, and we have a responsibility to those people to do our very best to promote humanism.

TheHumanist.com: Finally, and most importantly, what should we serve at your going-away party?!

Ardiente: Cake. There must be cake. 🙂