Golden Valley Electric Association has nearly doubled the number of employees volunteering for community service by organizing monthly projects that have helped charities throughout Fairbanks, Alaska, and boosted staff morale.

Co-op employees have volunteered at spring cleanups, blood drives, soup kitchens, literacy centers, community gardens and food banks. They have even filled one of the weekly routes for the local Meals on Wheels program, working in rotating pairs to deliver food to older residents.

“It’s having quite a large impact,” says Laurie Lizette, program assistant for the Meals on Wheels program in Fairbanks, a city of about 31,500 residents. “They take hot meals to 21 seniors every Thursday, and the Golden Valley drivers are always upbeat. My hat’s off to the CEO. We wish more companies would allow their employees to do this.”

Golden Valley President and CEO John Burns says the volunteer program has been “transformational” for the co-op.

The number of volunteer hours worked by co-op employees has risen from 176 in 2020 to nearly 300 in 2021, when the organized service opportunities began, says Grace Wilson, the co-op’s public relations coordinator. And the number of employees volunteering during that period has nearly doubled—from 33 to 64. Wilson, who organizes the projects, says she hopes to see those numbers rise even higher this year at the 36,000-meter co-op, which employs about 270 people.

“Our employees understand that a healthy and vibrant community involves more than just doing your job,” says Burns, who has volunteered to serve food at a local soup kitchen. “Most of our employees are longtime members of the community, and they want to give back. Now they’re getting a real opportunity to do that.”

While the co-op has long given employees eight paid hours a year to volunteer at the charity of their choice, the public relations department pumped up participation in the program last year by setting up opportunities that make it easy for interested staff members to just show up and help.

Wilson works to make volunteering as painless as possible, organizing the service projects with United Way member agencies and creating online signup sheets. For Meals on Wheels volunteers, she even set up fingerprinting services at the co-op to help employees meet the charity’s security requirements.

“Everyone is so busy and has a full schedule,” she says. “Just telling them where to be when and what to wear makes it go really smoothly.”

She says the most common feedback they’re getting from employees is how much fun they’re having with each other.

“You spend two and a half hours in the car with a co-worker delivering for Meals on Wheels and, by the end of it, you’re friends,” Wilson says. “It’s incredible the camaraderie it’s creating.”

One of the keys to the program’s success was surveying employees beforehand and asking them what kind of activities were important to them, says Meadow Bailey, the co-op’s director of external affairs and public relations.

“One of the biggest responses we got was that they wanted to be more involved in the community, to have more visibility and engagement,” she says. “This is a way of giving not just funds but some elbow grease back.”

Even some of the dirtier jobs have turned into bonding experiences, Bailey says. During the spring thaw in Fairbanks, the snow melts to reveal layers of trash, including mattresses and other large items that have fallen off the backs of trucks and been buried in the snow drifts. Last winter, Golden Valley employees joined other community volunteers for a cleanup day that turned into a cleanup week.

For the Meals on Wheels program, the co-op volunteers are doing more than providing crucial nourishment to seniors, Lizette says.

“As drivers, they become our eyes and our ears to do a kind of welfare check on seniors to make sure they’re okay,” she says. “Sometimes, a senior has fallen and had to go to the hospital. Our drivers are crucial. They’re a very special group of people.”

Does your small or medium-sized co-op have an innovative program or unique solution to share? Send Thinking Big ideas to Erin Kelly at