University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, Jan./Feb. 1998, pp. 29-33.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service
How Co-ops Give Power to the People
How is a cooperative—specifically, an electric or telecommunications cooperative—different from any other business that provides the same service? Electric, telephone and most other types of cooperatives were born out of necessity. There was a need. The neighbors of that community did not have electricity. There was no phone service. These services were available in the larger cities but not in the small towns and not on the farm. No one was interested in serving these high-cost rural areas.
The emotional reaction that came with electric power was overwhelming. Men and women have told stories for years of how tears came to their eyes when the lights came on in their homes. A farmer giving witness in a Tennessee church in the early 1940s said, "Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this: The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house."
The connection of those first telephone lines erased loneliness and provided a connection to friends and neighbors across the countryside.
The lights came on after hard work and cooperation between neighbors. They worked together to organize the cooperative by signing up members. They held endless meetings to determine where the power lines would go. They worked with employees of the Rural Electrification Administration (now the Rural Utilities Service of USDA Rural Development) to make sure the project was feasible and could get the financing needed to build the project. There was no doubt this was their cooperative because they had organized it. They had built it with their own hands, minds, words and money. Today, that same cooperative spirit continues in the operation of the cooperative.
Southside Electric—A Good Example
How do cooperatives keep the members of the cooperative feeling like owners? In southern Virginia, the Southside Rural Electric Cooperative provides a good example of how utility cooperatives can keep the members involved. To start with, this cooperative, headquartered in the town of Crewe, Va., has returned $11 million in capital credits to its member-owners during the past 15 years.
From 3,000 to 5,000 members attend Southside Cooperative's annual meeting. It is held every year at a park-like area owned by the cooperative. It has a large pavilion that can handle the crowd, come rain or shine. In fact, the community uses the structure for many non co-op events.
Attendance at the annual meeting is boosted by providing members with a delicious barbecue meal, prepared by the "AWARE" volunteers who serve as unpaid ambassadors for the co-opt Turnout is also enhanced by offering door prizes that are drawn during the meetings. A large portion of the attendance comes from everyone having a good time, seeing friends and finding out what has been going on in the other communities in the Southside service area.
Southside does a good job on the annual meeting program, mixing the business meeting with entertainment. Speakers report on what is happening locally with a view of the national scene. At Southside's annual meeting, the co-op may also hold a health fair or a demonstration of different products ranging from emergency generators to home TV satellite dishes.
But, long before the annual meeting, a lot of work has taken place. Members of Southside's board of directors and AWARE volunteers have held meetings in their local communities, giving members a chance to voice concerns—or praises— in a setting with friends and neighbors. These meetings are advertised in the local media and in members' monthly billing statements. The meetings also are used to nominate directors who will be elected at the annual meeting.
People feel a strong involvement in Southside Cooperative because of effective communication between the members and the cooperative. Part of that lies in the AWARE volunteers. These people donate time and effort to serve as goodwil1 ambassadors for their cooperative. They are friends, neighbors and community leaders.
Information on local cooperative activity is placed in billings from the cooperative. In addition, Rural Living magazine, a publication for rural electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, carries four to eight pages of news regarding the Southside Cooperative and the area it serves.
The cooperative participates in the community. Employees are encouraged to become involved in civic activities. They serve as local elected officials, volunteer fire fighters and Little League coaches. The Red Cross is provided with an office in a cooperative-owned building. Southside also conducts safety demonstrations and school programs on safety.
The cooperative also sponsors courses for certifying fire fighters, first aid and CPR. It brings a busload of young people to Washington, D.C., every year as a part of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) youth tour. Southside also provides scholarships for rural youth to participate in statewide FFA and 4-H events. The cooperative supports and works with local Scout troops in helping Scouts earn the different merit badges.
All these different activities are done because the cooperative's members and its board of directors understand the importance of a strong community. It is the "coop way." Southside participates in the economic development and the improvement of the quality of life provided to all citizens, using many of the tools of the USDA Rural Development mission area. The cooperative has used the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program to make local industrial parks more attractive and useful to prospective businesses.
Southside also has helped build an assisted-care facility and helped award a Distance Learning grant to local schools and community colleges.
This is just one rural electric cooperative (REC). There are 1,000 other rural electric cooperatives and 1,000 rural telephone cooperatives (RTCs) across the nation providing the same types of help, services and leadership to rural communities. In the same way rural citizens worked together to bring the services of the first rural electric and telephone cooperatives, members today are working together to ensure that their communities have access to quality of life in education, health care, housing, and business development needed in today's world. Leadership by local citizens continues to be the most valuable resource in rural America today. The "co-op way" brings out the best in all of us.