NRECA President Tony Anderson is challenging electric cooperative leaders to envision the future of their co-ops and take action to prepare the next generation for success.

“Think about what you want the future of your co-op to be," Anderson said in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday at the first of NRECA's five Regional Meetings. “Create an army of advocates in your area. And think about creating a trained and qualified pool of future board members so you know you have reliable leadership your members can depend on for years to come."

In 2018, while Anderson was CEO of Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Michigan, his co-op's board of directors surprised him and the rest of the management team by asking them to come up with a program to attract younger board members.

“They had taken a long look in the mirror and knew they needed to prepare for the future," Anderson said. “They were smart and saw a changing community that needed new viewpoints and ideas to thrive."

In response, co-op staff reached out to “the best, busiest and brightest" community leaders and invited them to meetings to learn more about electric co-ops. Topics included co-op finances, distribution systems and political and regulatory challenges.

“We put two groups through this training," Anderson said. “Our third group will be starting up soon. What we ended up with were about 20 individuals very active in our community who now support their electric cooperative."

“None of them have ever challenged an incumbent director," he added. “Two of them have now joined the board—one via appointment and one via an election for an open seat. Cherryland's seven-member board of five men and two women now has a contingent of three who are under 50 years old."

Anderson also made a big change, retiring recently as Cherryland's CEO to make way for a younger leader. The new CEO, Rachel Johnson, took over in June.

“Rather than hanging on for another five years and letting a young leader slip away to another co-op, I stepped away to allow for new viewpoints and innovative ideas that our co-op requires to thrive in this changing industry and ever-evolving world," he said.

“The next generation fails only if we let them fail. We need to prepare our co-ops for success in the future and put our individual needs in the backseat. After all, that's what differentiates electric co-ops from investor-owned utilities."

Anderson also encouraged co-op leaders to contribute to the economic development of their communities by participating in the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program provides zero-interest loans to co-ops, which pass them along to local businesses to help fund job-creating development projects.

“This program is a great way to set the next generation up for success, while building a stronger connection between your cooperative and your community," he said.

The actions that co-op leaders take today will have a major impact on the future of the communities they serve, Anderson said.

“While your members and employees count on electricity to be reliable, they also count on the co-op to be a reliable and responsible leader for the community," he said. “Reliable leadership is about setting up the next generation for a brighter future and taking a strategic approach to ensuring members can rely on their co-op for years to come."