In April 2017, three Toastmasters in the then undistricted East Africa, with only seventeen clubs, received an email from the CEO Dan Rex stating, “If East Africa could charter three more clubs by June 2017, it would be granted Territorial Council status.” 

The three dreamers gladly accepted the challenge, and not only met it, but secretly challenged themselves to charter forty more clubs for a total of sixty clubs. Sixty was the minimum number of clubs required to apply for District status. The three were DTM Rozy Rana- East Africa’s First Territorial Chair, DTM Joshua Tahinduka – East Africa’s first Program Quality Director and me, Harry Karanja- East Africa’s first Club Growth Director. 

Our goal of ensuring that East Africa became a Toastmasters district was achieved three years later. In August 2020 the Toastmasters clubs in East Africa were granted status as a full-fledged district with sixty-six clubs! How did we pull off that feat? By fixing the leaking bucket. By fixing the leaking bucket, we chartered over forty new clubs but also prevented losing clubs. In those three years only two clubs were lost, an incredible membership retention rate of 97%! 

There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

So, fix it dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
So fix it dear Henry, dear Henry, fix it.

With what should I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza,
With what should I fix it, dear Liza, with what? …

(Lyrics of A hole in the bucket by Harry Belafonte)  Listen to the full song here

“The leaking bucket” is a metaphor that is used in business but can also be used in Toastmasters to signify attrition. Attrition is when you lose customers, members or people in your organization even as you bring others in. 

Matt Duczeminski, a professional writer on  entrepreneurship and customer relations, advises that, if you are carrying a bucket of water and it starts leaking, the logical course of action is to fix the leak before doing anything else. In Toastmasters, membership retention is how you fix the leaking bucket. 

Matt goes ahead to warn of the temptation to focus on member retention while ignoring the root cause of the high attrition. Retention is a requirement in good leadership. In this article I provide you with simple retention strategies  that can help build vibrant and sustainable Toastmasters’ meetings, clubs, areas, divisions and districts.

Tip 1: P – prioritize the needs of members.

Every single person who comes into a meeting, a club or joins your district, has come with certain needs. Toastmasters calls it “My WHY”. Every person has a reason for joining Toastmasters and it is this need that you must prioritize to ensure you retain them as a member. A few years ago, Toastmasters conducted focus group discussions, in different countries, and asked the question, “Why have you remained in your Toastmasters?” They then came up with 6 different personas. They discovered that, for example, there is the young professional who remains to build their professional skills; and the seasoned manager who joins Toastmasters to refresh their entrepreneurial skills, among others. It is therefore imperative for the Club and District to meet these member needs if they are to retain the member. Before you alert members that it is the membership renewal season again, take a step back and ask whether the needs of that member have been met, or are  being met. When you prioritize the needs, you are more likely to retain your  members.

Tip 2 E– enjoy

I am sure you have all heard the quote from Ralph Smedley that people learn most when they are having fun. Many among us, in January, made a commitment to join a gym membership and even wrote a cheque to ensure we sealed the commitment. Some have stayed on but sadly many have already dropped off. This is because when you are going to the gym, despite the goal, it is not easy. It is hard work running on treadmills and carrying weights. Gyms across the world have realized that unless they help people enjoy their time at the gym, most people end up dropping off. That’s why

  1. Every gym has a lot of positive energy. The first thing you will hear when you enter the gym is upbeat music to make the place lively.
  2. There is motion – the gym environment is dynamic. People keep moving from one point to the other while using equipment. No one is static. Trainers are also there motivating and guiding people.. 
  3. Mirrors – mirrors can make a room appear larger than it is, but did you know that gym mirrors are designed to make you look slimmer or more muscular? When you look at yourself in a mirror you are receiving instant positive feedback, you are like, ‘Yes! I can lift one more!’ 

So, borrowing from the gym, what can you do in your Toastmasters meeting to ensure people are coming back and enjoying themselves? 

  1. Music – what you want in a Toastmasters meeting is not just vocal variety but a variety of vocals. You want several people talking, and interacting. That is the music of a Toastmasters club. You hear different melodious speeches in table topics, role takers, prepared speakers – so you don’t have one person taking control of the meeting, you have several voices.
  2. Motion – don’t have the same theme every single meeting, don’t do the same old agenda, try something new. We have clubs in Kenya taking people to national parks and holding Toastmasters meeting there. 
  3. Feedback as your mirrors! Feedback must be positive, it must make you feel either slimmer or more muscular. When we have the evaluators, the grammarians and the other role takers giving great instant positive feedback, smiling throughout the meeting, then people get to enjoy themselves. When people enjoy, you are more likely to retain them.

Two men smiling for a photo moment

Tip 3 O– Offer value 

You must not only know the needs of people, but go further and offer value by making sure members do what they signed up for. Members didn’t sign up to watch other people speak. In Early Birds, the first club I helped charter, we had a simple rule during my presidency – if you are not a member of the club, you are not going to get a speaking slot. We were not being mean, we did this because those were opportunities reserved for our members who had paid dues exactly for that. The speeches and the roles you have in your club, those are the products of that club, why would you give them to another guest or member? Give them to your members! Offer your members value!

Tip 4 P– Protect your members 

Toastmasters is a positive and supportive environment so you need to protect your members by ensuring that they feel the Toastmasters positive energy. We have tough lives at work, school, and some of us, at home.  When you come to Toastmasters, you do not want a tough life, you want to come there and be protected in a safe and positive environment where you can thrive. Make sure that when your evaluators are giving feedback, they are not trying to audition to be judges for the next “America’s Got Talent” or to be the next Simon Cowell, that is not the reason they are there. They are there to give positive feedback and suggestions for improvement so that your members feel safe, protected and can flourish. 

Tip 5 L-lionize 

Lionize your members. What does that mean? Treat them like celebrities, make them feel good, recognize them. How do you do this? Give sincere recognition when they do something well. It is easy enough to do this forbest speaker, evaluator, and table topics speaker, but there are other things that some people do well which need recognition. For example, someone shows up for the meeting before it begins – that deserves recognition. Someone keeps their video on throughout the whole meeting- that deserves recognition. To lionize your members, make them feel like the kings of the jungle when they come to your club.

Tip 6 (a bonus) E-engage your members

Some regions do so well because they engage their members in meaningful relationships. Ask them to come and give their stories. Engage them in meaningful relationships and they will stay. In East Africa, there is a Swahili saying, “Watu ni mali” which loosely translates to “People are wealth.” People are the ones who will help you fix the leaking bucket, they are the ones who will energize the team. If you ignore your people, then you lose the one tool you have to ensure that your club, area, division and district thrive. So, engage your people. Put them on a pedestal and know that they are the wealth of your club.

If you haven’t realized it,  these tips spell the acronym PEOPLE. The lesson is simple: If you value your PEOPLE, you will fix the leaking bucket.

Harry Karanja is a Distinguished Toastmaster, and the Immediate Past District Director of District 114. He served as District Director for the  year 2019-2020