My Concerns About Toastmasters International

I’ve been a member of a Toastmasters club for the past 3 years. While I am by no means a terrible speaker, I appreciate being able to keep my speaking skills up to date and network with a group of like-minded people. Lately, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the path Toastmasters International has been taking. Where I take issue may be divided into two main categories: finances and democracy.

Let’s start with the finances: Each member of a Toastmasters club pays membership fees in order to access the educational program resources. The club then pays this money to Toastmasters International (TMI). Clubs may also charge extra to cover essentials such as room hire and non-essential items such as snacks and (in the case of NZ clubs) the District Service Charge.

This year, it was announced that the membership fees that clubs would have to pay to TMI will increase by 25%. TMI published a vague and verbose FAQ to allay concerns. All good right? Sure, if you’re sycophantic with cult-like tendencies then everything’s great. Even with the fees increase, “Toastmasters is still great value!”.

However if you are capable of empathy or if you have experience with university club sign-up days (I have both!), then you will know that telling someone that joining a Toastmasters club will cost you about 120 NZD/year* is an effective way to scare off new members. Increasing this number by 25% will only serve to make Toastmasters more unattractive to university students.

And it’s not just us ivory-tower academic elitists that are affected. What about the unemployed, or those on low incomes who have the will-power to improve their skills in order to ascend the career ladder? A fees rise further shuts them out, which is perversely ironic as Toastmasters should be an instrument of social mobility!

It gets even worse. In NZ, $120 /year isn’t much for many people (about 30 cups of coffee from your local café). For other countries however, 120 NZD would be regarded as a lot of money. Are regional disparities considered when TMI calculates fees? Of course not, it’s 6 USD/per month for everyone! Undoubtedly, this inhibits the growth of the organisation in many parts of the world.

And yet, who adds the value that members experience when they attend club meetings? Why, it’s their peers and the club executive, none of whom are paid to reflect the value they add. In fact, they’re all contributing to the Amazonian revenue stream that flows towards TMI! In fact, there are executives (which most Toastmasters members probably have never heard of) who receive exorbitant salaries for doing what appears to be not much.

To summarise so far: Toastmasters members already pay fees which are prohibitive for those of limited means and those who work to ensure their clubs are of high quality do not get remunerated for their efforts. And now the fees are going to increase?!

Well, let’s look at what happened the last time that fees were raised in 2011. There was no increase in spending on membership services in the following two years, instead funds were used to play the stock market and building an unnecessary amount of reserves! How can we trust that TMI will spend the proceeds on membership services this time around?

As far as I’m concerned, we can’t. The fees rise should be vigourously opposed by everybody since it is unnecessary and has been inadequately justified**. But I’m just some guy ranting on the internet. What do other Toastmasters think?

Apparently not much. I was made aware of these issues by a mass email sent out by  a Toastmaster from District 59 (Southern and Western Europe). What did the District 72 (Toastmasters NZ) leadership have to say about this?

It has come to my attention that District 59 (European District) is sending unsolicited emails out to various clubs/people around the world regarding the upcoming fees increase.

Please be advised that the District Trio and World Headquarters are aware of this and there is no need to (sic) Clubs to respond to this email.

Well, that puts my mind at ease! \sarc. It also highlights the rather dictatorial, top-down approach that is persistent in Toastmasters where those in leadership roles generally stick to the establishment view. I see it as a classic example of groupthink. Those in leadership positions become immersed in their new-found importance (i.e. the organisation has done good things for them, therefore the organisation must be good) and become strident defenders of whatever TMI World Headquarters (WHQ) advocates.

That brings us along to the lack of democracy in Toastmasters: The upper echelons of TMI were not happy about this information being revealed. Of course, the logical course of action to take was to prohibit criticism of the organisation (see here for more details). It’s also become very apparent that the current system disenfranchises clubs from being able to get in the way of TMI WHQ’s aspirations.

For example, consider Proposal A from the 2016 International Convention in Washington DC. Passing this proposal would mean that TMI was no longer required to locate the WHQ in California. TMI argues that California is too expensive*** and that having the option to re-locate would be financially advantageous to all new members. On the web page which explains Proposal A, there’s a big information box advising clubs to vote “for” this proposal. Similarly, the District Director parroted the same endorsement in an email sent out to all NZ clubs.

Surely those who had reservations about this proposal would be given an equal platform to argue their case, right? No. For example, one California-based toastmaster was denied the opportunity to provide an alternative viewpoint on the TMI website.

Having decided that I opposed Proposal A (along with the rest of the club executive team), I then had to navigate the confusing world of proxy-voting. Since nobody from a university club in New Zealand is going to travel to the International Convention, we would need to allocate our votes to someone who is attending in person. We had two options: designate (1) the District Director as our proxyholder, or (2) any Toastmaster in attendance. Given our District Director’s enthusiasm for Proposal A, could we trust them to follow our instructions? After a bit of wrangling via email and Facebook, I was able to find a like-minded Toastmaster who was happy to be our proxyholder. Electronic voting would be much easier, allowing all clubs the opportunity to make their voices heard. We are able to elect student union representatives via electronic voting, why not make it more widespread? I don’t think it’s a good idea for parliamentary elections where integrity is paramount, but Toastmasters elections aren’t as important so the risks are not as serious.

So, how did the vote go? Badly. There doesn’t seem to be an official breakdown of the vote available online, but Facebook comments indicate that Proposal A passed with 98% of the vote. Now we find out that TMI is going to relocate its WHQ. TMI deny that the 2016 dues rise will fund the massive capital expenditure required for such a move, instead:

The potential relocation will be funded by Toastmasters International’s investment funds, which have been set aside for such a purpose.

i.e. the thing that the 2011 dues rise was spent on! TMI doesn’t list this as one of the things that the last dues increase was used for in the 2016 FAQ. Why weren’t more members outraged by this?

In some ways, such a one-sided result wasn’t too surprising. The members who are vocally opposed to this had spare time, experience with Toastmasters and a strong sense of justice. Not all club executives have all of these traits. They are well-meaning people who follow the advice of TMI and their District Director and vote for Proposal A and don’t think about it again. Other executives might not even know there were proposals to vote on. Executives may have wanted to vote “Against”, but didn’t know anyone who shared their view who was going to the International Convention. And, there’s no way of knowing whether District Directors followed the instructions of “Against” voters who gave them proxies. While the result is legitimate, that doesn’t mean that it is representative of club opinion.

What can I do about this? Not much. The bureaucracy involved with TMI is too difficult for members to propose and effect changes. As a club president, I owe it to my fellow members to not lead them head-first into a worse situation. For the club I belong to, I see three options:

  1. Accept it. Raise the fees and ignore the bad issues. If I’m going to be part of a cult, I may as well enjoy it! Drive away potential members because the price is too high.
  2. Arrange funding from the student union to pay for the fees rise. This would only apply to our student members, but would avoid potential chaos associated with leaving TMI.
  3. Leave. The club would then be free to manage things as it sees fit, but we lose the education programme, leadership training and contests. To replace the education programme with something in-house would be more effort than we would be prepared to make.

As things stand, the plan is to go with Option 2, a luxury many TM clubs won’t have. For those who want to leave, I would encourage you to check out Agora Speakers, an initiative that arose from the concerns of some of the members of District 59. They have some very good ideas which I look forward to seeing develop in the coming months and years.

To conclude, Toastmasters International is more corporatised than we would have imagined when we went along to our very first club meeting. It is my opinion that the top-level leadership have made a poor decision in choosing to relocate WHQ, leading to poorly justified fees increases. That the International Executives are highly paid, while those who actually add value to the organisation do so for free is completely unfair. To claim that TMI is democratic is fanciful, given the convoluted process that clubs need to go through in order to make their votes count.

We must all ask ourselves: Is this something that we want to be part of?

*This is the best-case scenario where a club charges the bare minimum to cover the charges that TMI imposes upon clubs. The fact that it has to be paid in 6-monthly blocks is also ridiculous and is a nightmare for any VP Membership who is sufficiently competent to notice.

**I also think the 2011 fees rise should be reversed given that the proceeds have been used inappropriately, that would make a massive difference in terms of making TM more attractive to potential members.

***This comes across as standard right-wing non-logic. A non-profit organisation shouldn’t concern itself with tax rates. Plus, it seems that the heritage of TMI being founded in California isn’t worth much.

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2 thoughts on “My Concerns About Toastmasters International

  1. Isn’t it amazing how much profit one can make with a non-profit organisation?! I also find it quite ironic that Toastmasters, entirely devoted to communication, either see “no need to respond” or openly “prohibit criticism”.

    You write: “Each member of a Toastmasters club pays membership fees in order to access the educational program resources.” That’s actually not true. Each member pays membership fees and they have to purchase the educational programme resources on top of that!

    The other day I met a lady who’s a member of a Toastmasters club in a small town in Canada. For members who work through a manual the second time round, they have PDF copies available so there’s no need to buy the official copies again. Maybe such inofficial copies would be another starting point to make the TI membership optional for club members, who do not want to pay the organisation?

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    • You are technically correct regarding the educational resources being separate from membership fees. But to receive credit for completing manuals requires one to pay membership fees at some point. Plus, the first two advanced manuals are free, so I think it is fair to say that membership fees partly cover educational resources.

      While there would be concerns about copyright infringement, given the fairly private, low-key nature of club meetings, I can’t imagine that the copyrights could be policed.

      The club members could choose to chip in for 8 sets of fees to keep the club in good standing, while everyone uses digital copies of the manual. If they then want credit, they could pay for one month of fees before the renewal date and submit the award then.

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