Corn Belt Energy Renews Focus on the Cooperative Difference

By: Jerri Imgarten, The Victory Electric Cooperative Assn., Inc.

For most cooperative communicators, capital credit retirements are routine events that require minimal time to create a press release, bill stuffer and a few social media blasts. But for Corn Belt Energy, a 35,000-member cooperative based in Bloomington, Illinois, the largest capital credit retirement in the cooperative’s history spurred a renewed campaign to promote the advantage of capital credits and how they distinguish cooperatives from the investor owned utilities in the area, and ultimately, provide a means of reaching members in a positive way.

“Building stronger relationships with our members is always top of mind for Corn Belt Energy, and it is especially important for us to be able to explain the cooperative difference and what it means to be a cooperative member to our new members,” said Hillary Cherry, Corn Belt’s director of communications. “Returning capital credits is a win/win. Members are always thrilled to receive a check from the cooperative, and what better way to tell the cooperative story than to return capital credits.”

Strategic communications played a large role in the timing and means of announcing the $9 million capital credit retirement in 2017. Planning for the announcement began in early 2017 with the development of a communications plan, which included both internal and external communications. The big capital credit retirement announcement was made to members at the annual meeting, which also allowed the cooperative to start a dialogue about member economic participation, one of the seven cooperative principles. Following the big announcement at the annual meeting, the news about the $9 million capital credit retirement was included in the annual meeting press release, a newsletter article, new images were added to the main page of the website, and website information was updated. In addition, capital credits were included on the agenda as a discussion topic at the summer member advisory committee meeting, which allowed for further communication on the cooperative difference.

“We wanted our members to know that our ability to retire almost $40 million in capital credits throughout our 79-year history reflects the cooperative’s strength and financial stability and provides a means to inform members about the cooperative difference,” Cherry said. “Strategic communications allowed us to properly communicate our message to both employees and the membership with the goal of creating positive interactions with members, as well as preparing our employees and easing any concern or apprehension about the capital credit retirement.”

In the past, retiring capital credit was overwhelming process for staff at Corn Belt Energy due to the amount of phone calls and questions received. This time, all employees were provided with a frequently asked questions document and talking points about the capital credit retirement, as well as a sample of the capital credit check to better equip employees to answer member questions.

Cherry, who earned her CCC in 2016, encourages two-way communications with members and employees when planning the execution and messaging of a strategic initiative. Having the perspective of those employees and members is key to getting their buy in and participation. “Communicating effectively is directly correlated to how people learn and acquire information. I have learned to develop effective communications strategies and utilize a variety of communications tools to successfully convey messages to a wide variety of audiences.

My 17 years of professional experience has taught me to assess organizational needs, identify stakeholders and create messaging that speaks credibly to a variety of audiences. In addition, I have learned valuable skills such as interpreting financial reports and translating highly technical information to a form in which the target audience can easily understand.”