Tonight, I was a part of something bigger than myself.
Actually, that is misguided. I have been a part of this something for just about a year. Tonight was the payoff.
Monday evenings are my Toastmaster nights. The club usually ends at 8:30pm while a few of us get out closer to 9:00pm to clean up. I got to talking to a couple of other members afterwards and a lady walked up to us. Immediately, the three of us could tell that something was a little bit off about her. She asked if we could provide a ride to a local McDonalds. She had just walked a couple of miles from Deaconess Hospital and confused us as members of the church that we met. Carol was very honest from the beginning – she was homeless and on medication. But she needed a ride.
Rich and I worked out a situation for our safety to make it work out. Together, we took Carol to the McDonald’s while Sue would meet us after we dropped her off. Carol explained how tough life had been since they lost their previous house. She and her family were to move into a new house next month. For now they were living among the trees. On the ground. No tent or tarp. She said they had to sleep in their regular clothes while it was storming and raining last night.
I won’t lie. I was scared. I know that most people aren’t going to do anything. Even most crazy people aren’t going to do anything. However, the internet makes things scary. There was a time when I was 18 that I stopped anytime I saw a car on the side of road to see if I could help. But that was 19 years ago. Now I have a family. I wanted to call my wife and tell her that I loved her. I wanted to hug my daughter one more time… just in case.
We arrived to the McDonald’s and Carol got out. I wanted to give her some money, but I don’t carry any cash. We told her to be safe and then Rich and I met Sue. Nothing bad happened. Rich and I were safe. Life went on.
One year ago, I put my name in a hat to be the Vice President of Education (VPE) for my local club and was confirmed. I went to training and understood very little. Another VPE gave me a leadership handbook and I felt like I got myself in over my head. The VPE is considered the most time consuming job of the local club officers. However, I found a goal to work towards – the President’s Distinguished award for our local club. To be President’s Distinguished, our club has to meet certain criteria. It is not necessarily hard, but it is difficult. It is the highest award a club can receive, beyond Select Distinguished and Distinguished. I set my eyes on the goal and started finding ways to put our club in position.
To make a long story short, six month membership dues are in October and April. On April 1, we had 14 active members. We started the year (July 1) with 22 members. We had over 12 people join between July 1 and April 1, but we were down 8 members. We had met the requirements to be Distinguished in January and were well on track to be President’s Distinguished by the middle of April. But to be distinguished, a club needs 20 members. We were also facing smaller club meetings because of life events and did not know what was going to happen.
The club officers decided to make a concentrated effort on not only bring in new members but do a better job of retention. There is 40% attrition across Toastmasters International. Our club had as many as 34 memberships and were down to 14. That is 59% attrition for our club. Most of our attrition was to experienced members moving on in life. Only a few of the 20 had joined during the Toastmaster year (July 1-June 30). Several of our officers started working through the Successful Club Series. A new member joined here. Another there. A couple of members who had life events happen renewed. Another joined. We have had several visitors over the past 3 months and we have a really positive club environment. It was frustrating when we accomplished the final goal to be President’s Distinguished in the middle of May and were still 3 members short.
Going into the meeting tonight, we had 19 members. A few other Toastmasters offered paper memberships – membership where they would join on paper if no one else did, but they would not take on any of the duties of being a member. These members have no longstanding ties to the club. I have a problem with this. We worked our butts off to get to a place that would have been cheapened if we accepted a paper membership. I would rather have 19 and no award than 20 with a paper membership.
When the meeting started, we had 3 guests. None seemed inclined to join at that moment. We had a great meeting. Again, none of the guests showed any interest of joining tonight. Our club started to wrestle with accepting a paper membership or sponsoring a honorary member. It was a bit tense. Then, one by one, each guest asked if they could join tonight.
We will have 22 members on June 30, 2016. Our club reached a goal that looked impossible at times this past year.
I believe in the mission of Toastmasters. It is to help make leaders and communicators more effective. It is relatively inexpensive – about $6/month and provides more training and education than you will find in many other programs. It is a nonprofit organization. This is what makes paper memberships so frustrating. The practice does not help anyone in the long run. Sure, we can pump up numbers, but why would you pay money to join a club and never participate? Especially when you already have a club you do participate? This doesn’t teach leadership. I could only come up with one answer… pride.
Look, I struggle with pride as much as many do. But pumping numbers to receive an award will be costly in the future. Eventually, the numbers will catch up with a group of leadership that is doing nothing wrong and reflect badly on their reputation. We could have reached our goal in April if we went the paper membership route, but we would still struggle having enough people fill our weekly roles. But we want members that want to be there, that will show up and learn to be better leaders and communicators. There is a good chance we would have stayed at 19 through July 1.
Tonight, I was able to share with my friends and fellow members the payoff of something bigger than myself. Our club is Presidents Distinguished. A medicated homeless lady named Carol got a ride. Next month, she is moving into her home. Next year, we will work towards Presidents Distinguished and 30 members with no paper memberships.