When people hear the word “basement,” they’re not likely to picture the home of a global communication and leadership development organization. But a basement in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Santa Ana, California, is exactly where Ralph C. Smedley held the first meeting of what would eventually become Toastmasters International. The date was October 22, 1924.
Smedley began working as director of education for the YMCA after he graduated from college. He observed that many of the young patrons needed “training in the art of public speaking and in presiding over meetings,” and decided to help them with a training format that was similar to a social club. During the early 1900s, the word “toastmaster” referred to a person who proposed the toasts and introduced the speakers at a banquet. Smedley named his group “The Toastmasters Club” because he thought it suggested a pleasant, social atmosphere that would appeal to young men.
At that first Toastmasters meeting, members practiced speaking skills in a supportive, informal atmosphere. The seedling club blossomed. Then another sprung up in nearby Anaheim. Word spread about Smedley’s experiment and soon people in other communities, and even other states, began to request permission and help to start their own Toastmasters meetings.
As more clubs emerged, it was a time of firsts: Smedley created the first Toastmasters manual, and publication of The Gavel – the first Toastmasters newsletter – began in 1930. (The Toastmaster magazine made its debut three years later.)
In the 1930s, the organization grew to an international level by incorporating and chartering its first club outside the United States, in British Columbia, Canada.
Over the ensuing years, Toastmasters International laid the foundation for many of the activities and philosophies we know today: The first Inter-Club Speech Contest was held in 1938; District 18 of Scotland became the first district outside the United States in 1946; and in 1968, the first Competent Toastmaster (CTM) awards were issued for completing the manual, Basic Training for Toastmasters. Two years later, the first Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) awards were handed out.
Until 1962, a series of rented office spaces in Southern California served as Toastmasters International’s “home office.” That year, the staff moved into its first World Headquarters building. The Santa Ana facility wasn’t far from the YMCA where the first Toastmasters club met.
In 1973, Toastmasters met an important milestone by opening membership to women. Twelve years later, Helen Blanchard became the organization’s first female president.
By 1982, membership reached 100,000. To better serve its growing worldwide membership, World Headquarters relocated in 1990 to its current building in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, 20 miles south of Santa Ana.
In July 1997, a bold new offering was developed for the educational program: An improved two-track educational recognition system that allowed members to pursue awards in both leadership and communication. In 1999, the 10-goal Distinguished Club Program was introduced.
… And Now
As Toastmasters International celebrates its 85th anniversary (October 22, 2009), the organization stands at a historic high point. Program offerings have never been more expansive. Toastmasters leaders have developed innovative strategies to keep up with advances and shifting cultural dynamics of the global age. Indeed, while many organizations around the world are downsizing because of the economic climate, Toastmasters International is growing with thousands of people taking advantage of the organization’s programs to enhance their communication skills. Membership is at an all-time high, with more than 250,000 members in 12,000 clubs in 106 countries. As of June 30 a record 1,073 new clubs were chartered, and 56 districts were recognized as Distinguished or better, a number surpassing all previous years.
“Toastmasters grew by nearly five percent in 2009,” says Toastmasters Executive Director Daniel Rex. “Tens of thousands of people have seen the value of the Toastmasters training in their personal lives and careers. They know the program can see them through a lot of challenges.”
As Rex sees it, there is no limit to the growth potential of Toastmasters International, and he is making sure the World Headquarters staff is well positioned to serve its members as their needs change and the organization grows in existing and emerging markets.
“Our renewed emphasis is to provide optimal service and resources at each member development stage, beginning with the prospective member who is looking for a club on the Web site, applying for membership in the club, receiving a New Member Kit, and talking with a staff member on the phone,” Rex explains.
One way to meet members’ needs is through the Toastmasters Web site which is continually expanded through new product and service offerings. An exciting and recent addition to the Web site is the organization’s first e-learning tool, Toastmasters Learning Connection (TLC) for district leaders. Blending education with the power of the Internet, TLC provides access to Toastmasters’ officer training in a virtual learning environment. The distance-learning program is designed to complement face-to-face training and is not intended to replace it. This program still is in its infancy, but is expected to encompass training for a variety of officers.
Another recent change voted in by members at the annual International Convention on Aug. 14, 2009, is Global Representation and Support. It improves the organization’s structure by enhancing global representation with 14 regions and directors, and replaces The Nominating Committee with the International Leadership Committee (ILC). More information on the implementation of this proposal will be shared on the Toastmasters Web site and in the November issue of this magazine.
The organization’s profile is about to grow even higher: A new film about Toastmasters is scheduled for release this fall. SpeakEasy, a feature-length documentary produced by Tumbleweed Entertainment, explores the 2008 World Championship of Public Speaking and the larger Toastmasters world.
From a gathering in a YMCA basement in 1924 to the 12,000-plus clubs that meet in 106 countries today, the Toastmasters story is one of dramatic growth and success. And with accomplishments come opportunities. “As we meet our members’ needs and greet thousands of club visitors, we offer the most valuable service imaginable: We help people improve their lives,” says Rex. “That’s what the Toastmasters mission is all about.”
Editor’s Note: For detailed information about Toastmasters’ history, visit toastmasters.org and type “timeline” into the search box.