Do your members view your organization as a co-op or a utility? I ask this question frequently at the workshops I conduct around the country. Many folks reluctantly say, “A utility.” Some add the caveat that the older the member, the more likely they are to say, “A co-op.”

Electric co-ops talk about their history often, and with good reason. The founders of this program some 75 years ago accomplished a great thing: bringing rural America out of the dark.

So what happened? How did we go from all members knowing that they’re part of a co-op to many feeling no different than the customer of an investor-owned utility (IOU) or a municipal?When your co-op was first getting started, there is no doubt that every member would answer the question the same way: “A co-op.” They’d heard the pitch of the folks going door to door, farm to farm, ranch to ranch signing people up.

It all boils down to member engagement.

In the beginning, we worked hard to establish one-on- one contacts with members and prospective members. That relationship was critical to the co-op’s survival. But over time, as service territories and the co-op business model became established, the need for that personal affiliation began to diminish. And as co-ops grew, it became logistically more difficult to establish and maintain that connection. We still provided great service. In fact, the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) consistently scores electric co-ops above IOUs and munis. But for many co-ops, the member-owner connection of days gone by has frayed.

Now, as the electric utility industry transforms, and consumers have access to a growing number of energy choices, rekindling that connection with members could mean the difference between merely surviving and thriving. To do that, we have to create entry points that inspire understanding of the cooperative business model and loyalty among members.

As it was at the beginning, member engagement is the key. Back then, it was knocking on doors and signing members up. Now, it can be small things, such as asking members what services they’d like or letting them determine the date of their bill, or bigger things like seeking their input regarding the source of their electricity. It also means being present in the communities you serve and showcasing how your work improves the quality of life there.

The opportunities to engage are endless. It can be hard to know where to start. But one thing I know about member engagement: The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway. coop.