Membership Building: Toastmasters in Rural Areas

Membership Building: Toastmasters in Rural Areas

How to “get coverage” and run a Toastmasters
club in sparsely populated areas.

By Mark Dykeman

A popular series of commercials showed a man testing his cell phone in places where you wouldn’t normally get cell phone coverage, such as mountaintops and fields. These commercials helped coin the phrase “Can you hear me now?” The message in these commercials was that this cell phone carrier could provide coverage virtually anywhere, especially where other companies did not offer service. This example of cell phone coverage parallels the way Toastmasters clubs are more concentrated in cities and large communities than in rural areas – but we do have coverage everywhere!

Does the low population of a rural area make it almost impossible to “get coverage” or run a Toastmasters club? Some people might say yes, others might say no. For example, it would seem to be harder to build and maintain a Toastmasters club in rural areas than in the big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Toronto or Vancouver which have populations in the millions. In your more pessimistic moments, you might be tempted to think of that old saying, “If a tree falls in a forest, will anybody hear it?”

Consider a few facts:

  • Almost any community will have at least one group or service organization.
  • Virtually any community will have one or more employers of some size (say 50 employees or more) or an alliance of small businesses or entrepreneurs.
  • People who live in the country realize that part of the trade-off for a rural “quality of life” is the number of hours spent in a car, bus or train.
  • The desires for improved communication and self-expression are universal.

Toastmasters can be successful in rural areas! As an example, District 45 is largely rural, sparsely populated and stretches over sections of both Canada and the U.S. The largest city in District 45 has less than 300,000 inhabitants, while most municipalities are much smaller. However, this district routinely has excellent results in the Distinguished District, Area and Club Programs. Despite the relatively low population, District 45 clubs are successful by many measurements. Other districts with highly rural populations are also successful.

So what are the steps to success in rural areas?

1.  Build a successful club with strong leadership. Every club needs to have the basics in place. Your club officers need to know what their jobs are and they need to do those jobs. You need to have all the necessary programs in place for education, membership, public relations and mentoring.

Keep your club as informal, interesting and fun as possible. Make your club a place where passions can be expressed, skills can shine and friendships can be formed. Make the Toastmasters meeting one of the highlights of a member’s week!

Cultivate strong, enthusiastic club leaders, because they are the public face of your club. They contribute to the maintenance and growth of the club. Start with officer training at the district and make sure they know how to access TI’s member Web site for information and tips for success.

Take care of your members. Find out what they want or need and help them achieve it. Monitor attendance and be sure to contact any members who start to miss meetings. If their attendance reflects dissatisfaction with the club, find out what you can do to resolve any issues. Every member is like a precious gem. You want to keep him or her happy!

2.  Word-of-mouth and other promotion. Word-of-mouth promotion is critical to the success of a rural club. Yarmouth Toastmasters in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, relies heavily on handpicking new members within their town of 7,500 residents and in surrounding areas. Club president David Mooney says, “Four of our active members are always speaking about Toastmasters and showing others about the great learning in both communication and leadership.” Armstrong Toastmasters, based in a community of 2,500 in British Columbia, finds success when members recruit their friends to join.

It’s also very important to promote your club within the local community. Armstrong club president Anna Houston shares several successful techniques: “Our VP Public Relations puts out small but eye-catching posters all around town. We also have a standing reminder in the local weekly newspaper’s community calendar, reminding and inviting ‘one and all’ to our meetings on Tuesday evenings at the Chamber of Commerce office.”

Special events, such as open house meetings, can be very useful. “We hold an evening networking event each year during Small Business Week,” says David Mooney. “During this event we always sign up two to three new members from local businesses.”

3.  Consider daytime meetings. If your club is struggling with getting members to evening meetings, try daytime meetings. Yarmouth Toastmasters meets two or three Thursdays each month from 12:15 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Daytime Toastmasters meetings are commonly held in the New Brunswick communities of Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton. Daytime meetings are often used by corporate or closed clubs with great success. Members from Harbourside Toastmasters of Saint John find noon-hour meetings more convenient for busy people whose evening agendas are full of family or community activities.

4.  Open your mind to “closed” clubs. On one hand, it might not make sense to have a closed club in an area with low population. After all, you don’t want to limit your potential membership. However, closed clubs that focus on specific organizations can help provide the necessary continuity and focus to help make a club successful.

Gary Belding, former Area 19 Governor for District 45, says the New Brunswick provincial government started its own Toastmasters club, “since employees offer a lot of presentations and Toastmasters would be part of a great professional development plan.” Local Toastmasters sold the idea to two government departments by sitting down with the deputy ministers (Business New Brunswick and the Dept of Tourism and Parks). In January 2003, Civil Speakers Toastmasters Club in Fredericton was born and is still going very strong.

5.  Partnership with other groups. Find other organizations that complement Toastmasters. One example is 4H, a youth organization that focuses on developing the minds, bodies, health and character of young people. Did you know that public speaking is a key part of the 4H program? Many clubs need judges for their public speaking competitions – Valley Toastmasters in Woodstock, New Brunswick, has provided judges to these competitions to help the 4H program while helping to spread awareness of Toastmasters. The 4H program provides a way to introduce Toastmasters to children and teenagers. You can plant the seed for future Toastmasters members through a youth organization. Toastmasters can provide similar help to school debating and oratorical clubs.

There’s no doubt that rural communities have their own unique challenges for maintaining Toastmasters clubs. However, with some hard work, careful marketing and creative partnerships, Toastmasters can thrive virtually anywhere.

Perhaps some day, in your small community, someone will ask the question, “Can you hear me now?” The answer will be “Yes, over here at Toastmasters!” 

Mark Dykeman, ACB, is a member of Valley Toastmasters club in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada.