Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are putting their unclaimed capital credits to good use by helping to fund college scholarships, food banks, libraries, local police department programs and other charitable projects that enrich their rural communities.

Co-ops across the state pool their unclaimed credits together and donate them to the Federated Youth Foundation. The nonprofit organization was formed in 1971 to administer a trust that Wisconsin co-ops of all kinds use to support educational and community service activities.

In fiscal 2021 alone, the foundation used the money to fund 676 college scholarships and 215 charitable projects, for a total of $992,910 spread throughout co-op communities in Wisconsin.

Each co-op that donates to the foundation has its own system for determining how and when its money will be used, says Ethan Giebel, the foundation’s executive director.

“Co-ops are able to build up their account as they wish so they can do something big at some point, if that’s what they choose to do,” he says. Many co-ops elect to make modest but more frequent donations to multiple local projects.

At Jackson Electric Cooperative in Black River Falls, which serves about 7,700 members, the funds are used to purchase livestock at the local county fair.

“We justify it as education for these youth, because they’re involved in 4-H and FFA, and they are learning about their projects, they’re learning about finances, they’re learning about marketing their product, they’re learning about public relations,” says Carol Blaken, the co-op’s member relations manager. “We think of it as the members’ money, so we put it back into the community.”

Rosholt-based Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative, which serves 8,000 members, recently used foundation funds to offer grants to local school districts for programs focused on science, technology, engineering, math and the arts.

Within just a few weeks of advertising the grants, the co-op received three applications from three separate schools: one for a super-mileage vehicle that students in the technology department would build from the ground up, learning about engineering and manufacturing in the process; another for an energy bike to be used in the science department and tech lab, teaching kids about electricity generation, fabrication design and engineering; and a third for an urban search-and-rescue robot that students would design and build and use to perform predetermined functions at competitions.

Brenda Mazemke, the co-op’s manager of member relations, says the co-op plans to evaluate the grant program after a year and decide whether to expand it to include other schools.

“We’re really excited,” she says. “Helping out the schools is so important right now. Their funds are limited, so anything we can do to help educate the kids is really important to us.”

Ellsworth-based Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, with nearly 7,700 members, is also using foundation funds for education, but their focus is on much younger children. The co-op teamed with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to promote childhood literacy.

“We do a lot with scholarships for high school kids and college-age kids, and this is basically a type of scholarship for younger kids, to get them ready for school,” says Liz Gunderson, the co-op’s communications coordinator.

Families in the co-op’s service territory who sign up for the program are each mailed an age-appropriate book once a month for five years, starting with simple board books and picture books for babies and toddlers and ending with a book titled “Kindergarten, Here I Come” when the child turns 5. Dolly Parton’s charity pays for the books, and the co-op pays the cost of postage with its foundation funds.

The co-op currently has 782 children enrolled in the program, and more than 120 have already graduated.

“I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from families that are involved,” Gunderson says. “They’re so excited when the books come, and the books themselves are just wonderful.”

Other Wisconsin co-ops use foundation funds for a variety of small projects that make a big impact.

Riverland Energy Cooperative, which is based in Holmen and has more than 18,500 members, made about 50 donations within its service territory in 2021. The co-op contributed to a variety of programs that benefit children, including 4-H projects, school booster clubs and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Similarly, Phillips-based Price Electric Cooperative, which has more than 9,000 members, spent its 2022 foundation donations on several local organizations, providing new jerseys for youth hockey, funding a community theater group that needs to upgrade its auditorium, and paying for improvements to a STEM room at the local children’s museum.

Editor’s note: An electric co-op’s ability to retain unclaimed capital credits varies based on state law. Co-ops are encouraged to work with their local attorney regarding questions about unclaimed capital credits.