I’ve been with Toastmasters Košice as a member since March 2018 and I joined the management in December 2018. I can say that at this moment I know the club probably more than anyone else. However, I have been sensing for a long time, and I am not alone, that the club is in danger of disappearing.
Club without members has no purpose
Our club has had some bright moments in its history. When I joined, it had over 20 members. Even members of Toastmasters Tatry were belonging under our club. They didn’t have enough members to start a separate club (note: stupid Toastmasters International rules), so we took them in.
But nothing lasts forever. Shortly after my arrival there was a large exodus of members from the club. I guess they had learned what they needed to learn and moved on. And gradually the members in Poprad also dispersed. Since September 2018 we have shrunk considerably to perhaps thirteen of us. And there were maybe eight of us going to meetings regularly. Here began our gradual decline.
There were still older members in the management of the club for a year. However, as of September 2019, they too have left the club. Actually, with their departure, our club has changed completely. All of us who were in it, except maybe one, were new people. None of us had been in the club for more than a year and a half.
I, like the other leaders, started out full of vigour. I took it as an opportunity to create the kind of club I had always wanted to have. And I think that I, along with others, have succeeded in doing that. We regularly get compliments from people from other clubs about the quality of the speeches we give and the standard of our club. But that’s secondary. If the club is not able to attract new people in the long term, it is finished.
Over the years, I’ve become a bit of a psychologist. Often I could tell in a casual conversation whether a member was serious, whether he wanted to work hard, or whether he just came because he felt it might be good for him or her for whatever reason. People like that, who don’t want to work on themselves but want to be pulled along, always quit very quickly. Not because we are driving them away. They quit because they never really had the need to speak up and when they realize this, they’re gone in a heartbeat.
You could see it in the low interest in mentoring. We, as experienced members, offered a one-on-one approach to each member. We gave our time to pull others along. To make them grow through us and to lift the club up together. When I think back, I can count on one hand the people who were really interested in mentoring.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that our club was slowly starting to take off. The membership base was growing, but then came a difficult test. We were forced to switch to online meetings. Many were discouraged. Some even attended for a while, but then stopped doing that. Gradually our membership dwindled until we were on the verge of being threatened with extinction.
A healthy core
When I look at the club in a broader context, I see it as a boat on a rough sea whose crew just hopes to make it to morning and dock in port. Our core crew has steadily about four members, with the occasional addition of someone else.
We all came to the club because we wanted to learn and work on ourselves. The club has given us all a lot because we weren’t afraid to ask for it. And at the same time, we wanted to pass on what we learned. We wanted to help the club and pass the baton on. However, people like these were few and far between in the club like. And not only in the club… perhaps in the whole city of Košice.
For me personally, Toastmasters Košice is a bit like my own child. I have sacrificed hundreds of hours of unpaid work to the club and I do care what happens to it. I did everything I could to help the club through the hard times. But business has taught me that if something doesn’t work, you have to let it go.
Why do we keep struggling to gain more members?
There are several reasons. First and foremost, I see the problem in the existing members, both past and present. Most of them came to the club for selfish reasons of wanting to learn how to speak. That’s perfectly fine, by the way. However, once they learned it to the point that they were comfortable with it, they left.
But we’re not some company where you pay for training and when you’re done you walk away. We are a community club, and that only works if we also work together as a community. I notice that except for a few of us, no one around me says they go to Toastmasters. Almost no one does ambassadorship for our club. There have been a few people that have come through the club over the years that have made it various spheres of life. I don’t even see them mentioning the club and returning the favor even occasionally. It’s as if they have forgotten that they succeeded in part because of their membership in Toastmasters.
And even when we openly tell members we’re in trouble and ask for their help, most of them ignore us. They are fine with the club as long as it works. But if it fails, they just disappear and move on. But you can’t function with that attitude. Any semblance of cohesion and support is sadly lacking.
But I am glad that there are people like me who are genuinely trying to help the club and don’t care what happens to it.
Another problem is new potential members. I think we are active on social media and elsewhere. We do a good job of introducing people to the friendly atmosphere of the club while showing them the potential of what they can learn.
We even did an educational course in collaboration with the library. From there I got another important insight: people know about us. One of the participants, Jakub, revealed to us that he had known about our club for a long time but didn’t want to come. He didn’t want to devote more than a few weeks of his life to speaking, yet learning to speak is a long-term process.
There are many people like him. They want to be able to talk because it’s useful at work, at interviews, but these are all proxy reasons. I think most people don’t really want to learn to speak professioanlly. They’re not prepared to work for it in a long term and really sweat for it.
To cut a long story short, I think we, as a club, are well-known and recognized. Just through me alone, probably everyone I know is aware of the existence of Toastmasters. If they don’t come, it’s because they don’t want to. Not because they don’t know about us.
I’ve written this before in a different blog post, but I’ll say it again: People want to be led. They want to come somewhere, listen to someone else for an hour, and go home. We’re expected to be proactive, and apparently that puts people off. There are desperately few of us who are prepared to systematically go outside our comfort zone.
Last but not least, there is COVID-19. This has contributed to the huge instability in the club that we still feel today. For a while, we functioned on personal meetings in Tabačka in Košice. Later we waited to see what would happen. Then we switched to the online environment. Now we are meeting again in Tabačka and nobody knows for how long.
These changes discouraged perhaps all members except those who were not indifferent to the club. As a consequence, our membership base has shrunk considerably. And the fatigue fell on the rest of us as well.
Imagine having to give speeches every week because slowly but surely there is almost no one else to give them. Eventually we got tired of it, we were exhausted. We had meetings without speeches and meetings with only one speech became the norm. In short, for the club to move forward, it needs variety. We want and need to try out different roles and not drag out meetings by taking on two or three roles as members. Meetings are meant to be fun, not an obligation. It can’t work that way in the long term and it shows.
What about other clubs?
The situation here is not unique. Almost all Toastmasters clubs in Slovakia are struggling with it. Perhaps with the exception of Slovak Toastmasters, we all have small membership bases and many of us are even on the verge of becoming endangered. I think most of what I have written for our club is true for the others as well. In some places the community roots are stronger, in others weaker… but cooperation between clubs has been at a standstill for a long time.
When I saw that members didn’t know English, and saw the need to translate the easy-Speak software we use to schedule meetings, I did it. I take action, I don’t wait for others.
I’ll give you another example: at a leadership training we agreed to start creating our own Wikipedia as clubs and putting our experiences together. I put together a working solution in one day that everyone could try out right away. “Vlado, you did a great job. I’ll go try it out right away… They should give you a medal for what you’re doing.” The result? No one even looked at it despite the talk, I gathered from the server logs.
I get the feeling that these people are primarily concerned with fulfilling their projects, such as High-Performance Leadership, and really care little to nothing about actually helping the Toastmasters community.
A fellow Levice member tried to unite the Toastmasters clubs so that we could perform under a common brand. That too fizzled out. Like me, he was met with just empty talk and real deeds were simply lacking. How do we want to have successful clubs when everyone is only thinking of themselves? What is happening at the member level is also happening at the leadership level. We are fragmented as a community, we hardly help each other except in joint competitions. We don’t share solutions to the problems that plague us. We don’t write them down. We don’t communicate with each other.
The future of Toastmasters in Slovakia
I think the future is uncertain. It can turn out in any number of ways. The current situation is not encouraging, but it can still be changed. However, we have to genuinely want to work together and do something to really make things move. Not just talk about it.
Many clubs are also held back by inertia. They have functioned somehow up to now, so why should they change their ways? Well, while it may not be immediately obvious, it can play a big role. What if we don’t have members because we are not defined as a club, serving everyone and no one at the same time? Or what if the meetings are too long for people? These are the kinds of questions we should be collecting answers to, and constantly. Situations and clubs do change.
As far as our club is concerned, the fall will be critical. We should renew our membership at the end of September. However, it is possible that there will be so few of us left that it will break the club. I won’t be happy about it, but I don’t see it as a tragedy. I know we have done our best as leaders in our club. I’m proud of what we’ve done, where we’ve taken the club. And I will also remember our hiking together, the genuine joy of which was felt by all involved.
Every beginning has an end, it’s a natural part of life. Will it come in September? We’ll see…
After writing this post, I continued to think about our club and decided to resign from the club. For a long time now, it hasn’t been primarily about fun for me, but more about duty. However, I had been trying to save the club for two and a half years and enough was enough. I didn’t like the way we solved problems at the club, but at the same time I didn’t want to be the one taking responsibility for it anymore. If something doesn’t work, trying it again and again won’t change the outcome. Experimentation is needed and the club is not ready for that. I felt that if I continued to be at the club and try to solve all the problems, I might even be in danger of burnout. I need to take a break from Toastmasters, at least for a moment.