This month's question: What is your best advice for how co-ops can help improve or revitalize their communities?

Answer: The opportunities are endless for cooperatives to play a role in the health and vitality of their communities. My best advice is to stay engaged and at the table. Once you’re positioned as a key community partner, the alignment of strategic goals will become clear. Here at OTEC, we’ve found many unique partnership opportunities that have resulted in some of our most meaningful programs. For example, during a strategy session with our regional university, they expressed difficulty with getting their students to complete all four years and graduate here in eastern Oregon. We partnered with the school to create a four-year, full-ride scholarship that incentivizes four students per year to stay in school and graduate. They also complete three summer internships at OTEC, delivering value back to the cooperative and the membership. Another example is our growing partnership with rural fire departments. As part of our wildfire mitigation efforts, we have aided local RFDs with volunteer recruitment drives and leveraged funding streams and OTEC’s resources to underwrite new equipment and infrastructure improvements. We see the university and the RFDs as extensions of OTEC resources since we are all serving the same communities. We have a unique opportunity to leverage the cooperative network for the greater good. And as we all know, what’s best for our communities is what’s best for our cooperatives.

Answer: At Withlacoochee Electric, and as a member of the cooperative family, we take pride in and adhere to all of our cooperative principles. But we take particular care to ensure that the seventh principle, “Concern for the communities we serve,” is imbedded into the core of our mission to provide affordable, safe and efficient electricity to all our members. Just as our electrons run through our five-county service territory, a current of concern for community is woven into the fabric of every decision we make as a co-op. The best advice I can offer for how to help improve or revitalize your communities is to meet your members where they are. That’s how you learn about their true needs and wants. We have a Combined Core Team to help us with our strategic planning. This includes co-op members, cooperative staff, government officials and nonprofit and business partners. Our outreach engagement plan includes things like community town halls, presentations at civic groups and regular communication with our government officials so when we start a project, we know we have community-wide support. My other piece of advice: Stay for the long haul! Ensure that your presence in any project is prevalent, consistent and direct to reinforce your co-op’s genuine intent to invest in its members. Through these small but mighty steps, you’ll see better member engagement, a safer community and a positive cooperative workplace.

Answer: The most important action electric cooperatives can take to improve their local community is taking a role in all facets of economic development. Economic development is crucial to the current and future well-being of our members and served communities. We must use our cooperative voices to promote communities and tell our members’ stories, showing why our rural communities are the places to invest and build a life. We need our cooperatives developing relationships and making connections for our members to build a brighter future across our rural landscapes. We should be actively engaged in the discussions of local government bodies, civic organizations and others confronting the challenges of building and maintaining vital rural communities. We need to use our community-building skillsets to help educators create career pathways in schools, linking industry and students from kindergarten to skill certificate or degree programs and using these initiatives to develop a skilled workforce pipeline that is vital to recruiting new employment opportunities. We need to be involved in Main Street revitalization efforts to protect the heart of the community and to build a space that unleashes an entrepreneurial spirit and life in rural downtowns. Our cooperatives must champion the development of new industrial parks that bring opportunities for growth and investment, paving the way for our children to develop careers within our communities.

Answer: Electric cooperatives are in a unique position to positively impact the communities you serve. The most important first step you must take is to engage. Engage with your consumer-members; engage with the business community. Engagement only happens when what you are a talking about overlaps with what your members care about. That means you must start by listening and learning to understand the issues each are facing. True engagement is a cultural value. It requires a commitment to service excellence and a staff trained to deliver excellence. Every member of the co-op team is an ambassador within your community. Your staff are your eyes and ears to help understand community needs to advance engagement. Your team must be prepared to represent your co-op values within the community. And they must be empowered to act when it is needed. Touchstone Energy cooperatives have access to a variety of tools to support engagement. Whether it is supporting local businesses by spotlighting them on Co-op Connections, helping understand the needs of a prospective C&I customer through our relationships with national energy managers, or putting a book in the hands of your youngest members through our affiliation with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, Touchstone Energy is fully focused on helping you engage in your community. We can also help you create that team of community ambassadors through our Service Excellence program. We know engagement leads to stronger relationships. Once you develop that engagement, the next steps will come naturally.