When Butte Electric Cooperative leaders told Craig Douthit that he would be given $500 to donate to the charity of his choice, the work-order clerk didn’t have to think twice about where his money was going.

Douthit, who has worked at the Newell, South Dakota, co-op for 30 years, spent his off-hours volunteering as an emergency medical technician for the local ambulance company for nearly two decades. He recently had to give up volunteering at Butte County Ambulance-Newell when his wife was diagnosed with serious health issues.

“Since I wasn’t able to be there as a volunteer, I thought this would be a great way to continue to help them,” he says. “It really did feel good to give them the check, knowing that there are times when you go on an ambulance run and the patient can’t afford to pay. They’re always looking for funds. I know what they go through to try to help the community.”

The co-op’s other 20 employees also receive $500 annually from the co-op to direct to their favorite nonprofit group. The program started two years ago after the co-op’s board of directors proposed it as a way to engage employees by giving them control over how to spend the money Butte EC sets aside each year for charitable donations. There are a few restrictions, such as not giving the money to political groups.

Co-op employees gave a total of $10,500 this year to a wide variety of charities, including the local food pantry, the volunteer fire department, the Humane Society and the local Shriners club that supports hospitals for children.

Employees can give their entire $500 share to one charity or split it between two groups.

“It’s been a wonderful thing,” says co-op CEO and General Manager John Lee, who gave his share to the Shriners. “We cut a check to the nonprofit group that the employee chooses, and then we let them go present the check. They’re the ones who get to pose for the picture and see the expression on the faces of the people who receive the money. For me personally, it leaves me with a good feeling.”

By letting employees choose the charities, the co-op ends up contributing to a much broader swath of the community than it did in the past, Lee says.

“The money is definitely spread around more,” he says. “Employees are taking the initiative to do what they want. We wanted them to feel like they could make a difference rather the board or myself choosing these donations.”

Leaders of other co-ops can easily replicate Butte EC’s program if they’re interested, Lee says.

“If you’ve got a fund for donations that you’re willing to budget for every year, talk to your board about letting each employee have a share to direct to the charity that means the most to them,” he says. “The money stays in the co-op account, but we write a check to the group that the employee chooses, and they deliver the money. We get a lot of thank-you notes from the community. It’s all been very positive.”

Douthit says he appreciates the chance to help decide where the money goes.

“If the co-op chooses the charities and you’re not involved in those groups, you don’t really feel as good about it,” he says. “Everybody has different organizations that they have a compassion to donate to. If you know they have a need, you want to help.”

The $500 that Douthit presented to the volunteer ambulance company will help build a shower for the crew in the ambulance barn.

The shower is about much more than hygiene, says director Sherry Hocking. The volunteer crew is exposed to everything from COVID-19 to the potentially lethal toxin fentanyl from drug overdose cases.

EMTs and paramedics throughout the U.S. have inadvertently inhaled powder containing fentanyl while trying to save patients who have overdosed on heroin or other drugs laced with the dangerous substance.

“We get contaminated with things we shouldn’t have to bring home to our families,” Hocking says.

The ambulance company is relying on donations for the shower because it’s always operating at a loss. It rarely gets fully reimbursed for the calls its crews make to treat people and take them to the hospital.

“If an average call is about $1,000, we might get reimbursed for $200 to $300 by the patient, Medicare or Medicaid,” Hocking says. “Funding is a constant problem. Craig knows what we’re up against. Having people like him who support us is absolutely huge.”