Clark Electric Cooperative is a small co-op with a giant heart. Since 2005, the 9,400-member co-op in Greenwood, Wisconsin, has given a whopping $625,000 in donations to scores of community groups through its unique charitable foundation.

“We try to do what we can to improve the quality of life in our communities,” says CEO Tim Stewart. “You don’t have to be a huge system to add a lot of value to where you are. If something good happens in the community, usually the co-op is involved in it.”

It all began in the 1990s, when Clark Electric Appliance & Satellite Inc.—a wholly owned subsidiary of the co-op—obtained a franchise to deliver DirecTV’s digital satellite service to customers. The franchise was hugely successful, and DirecTV eventually chose to buy it back.

The money has helped pay for a long list of community needs. Among them: groceries for food pantries that help struggling families, a trailer for the fire department to haul gear, playground equipment for a local park, new buildings at the fairgrounds, football helmets and basketball uniforms for youth sports teams, books for schools, lifesaving defibrillators for various organizations, adult literacy programs for incarcerated people, a freezer for a day care center, backpacks full of food for hungry children, and aid for a battered women’s shelter and an animal rescue organization.

“It’s all about local people helping themselves,” Stewart says.

“The device doesn’t get fatigued, and it frees us to hook up tubes and do other things to help the patient,” says Jim Hagen, principal of Colby Middle School and a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. “We’re at least 20 minutes out from the hospital, so it absolutely can be a lifesaver. We’ve used it three times already.”

The Clark County Sheriff’s Department also got some help from the foundation, which donated $5,000 to expand the department’s K-9 program. The dogs and their specialized training cost about $13,000 each, and the foundation’s money will help buy a much-needed second canine, says Deputy Michael English. The dogs are invaluable in detecting the presence of illegal narcotics, says English, a dog handler who recently partnered with Arthur, a 3-year-old German shepherd mix.

“Arthur helps us catch the dealers,” English says. “He’s a big help with our drug problem in central Wisconsin. So far, we’ve had 94 deployments and 35 arrests, all related to narcotics. We’re looking forward to getting the next dog.”

Stewart recognizes that not every small co-op can start off with such a large pot of money to create a foundation. But he points to less expensive ways to help.

For example, the co-op has partnered with the Future Farmers of America to let students farm corn and soybeans on excess land around the co-op’s 40-acre headquarters.

“The kids make all the decisions about what to plant,” Stewart says. “We create scholarships for the FFA. And we ask them to teach a unit on the co-op business model.”

Co-ops know their communities well, and making an impact is just a matter of being aware of local needs and trying to help, he says.

“We need to remember what got us here, and that is meeting members’ needs.”

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