Community Engagement

These days, the role of electric cooperatives in their communities couldn’t be more important. Co-ops that are active in their communities earn a greater level of trust and loyalty among members. That trust and loyalty is critical to a successful grassroots program. These tools and checklists are meant to help co-op CEOs, directors and employees become more engaged in their communities to strengthen the foundation on which grassroots strength must stand.

Community Speaker Presentations

Community Engagement Guide

  • CEO Assessment

    As CEO, you play a significant leadership role in increasing member trust and loyalty toward your co-op. The following is a list of activities that can be gradually integrated into your schedule to support you in your role as spokesman for the co-op and leader of the effort to build member trust and loyalty.

    Easing in

    • Be present and visible at public/community events
    • Shake hands with nearly everyone in the room at a gathering
    • Call new members to personally welcome them to the community and reinforce their sense of ownership in the co-op
    • Meet with small groups of members to introduce yourself and discuss co-op operations

    Stepping it up a notch

    • Undertake volunteer work such as Habitat for Humanity, etc., and support your employees and directors/trustees in their own volunteer activities
    • Develop and deliver the “elevator speech” — a short 30-second version of your cooperative’s purpose — why it exists
    • Speak to small groups, such as service clubs or interest groups
    • Meet with candidates for public office and ask them to support co-op positions
    • Ask someone to match the co-op’s donation to a good cause

    Fully engaging

    • Become a guest on a radio or TV talk show
    • Lead a group of people through a brainstorming or problem-solving session
    • Serve on boards of community organizations, commissions (public and private)
    • Serve in a local, part-time office (a planning or economic development commission, etc.)
    • Participate in online discussions about the co-op’s role in the community on Facebook, blogs and other social media
    • Call total strangers in the membership to ask for their feedback
    • Correct the record, if needed, in a group setting
    • Sit down with co-op critics one at a time

    Rising to the occasion

    • Engage in media interviews during a time of crisis
    • Handle vocal dissent during your presentation in a small gathering, such as a club or service group meeting
    • Handle vocal dissent during your presentation at a larger gathering, such as the co-op’s annual meeting
    • Speaking/presenting to a gathering of co-op critics

    The main area of individual responsibility here is public speaking in one form or another. Consider the amount of time you as the CEO should devote to this outreach. The absolute best method for making sure that it happens regularly is to block specific times each week for your communications staff to find opportunities for you to appear publicly to discuss how the co-op is engaged in the community. Start small and build upon success as you go.

    If you are going to build member loyalty and reinforce community support for the cooperative, get in the habit of meeting and talking with key people in times when you do not need their help. It’s not good if they see you coming only when you need something from them. Your goal is to have your name and cell phone number in their contact list and not vice versa. They need to believe they need you to help them achieve their own goals.

  • Community Assessment

    Electric cooperatives exist to serve their members and help them improve the quality of their lives. The questions in this section will guide your discussion about your cooperative’s role in the community.

    • What are the major challenges faced by the communities in your service territory? How are you collecting this information?
    • Do your members regard their cooperative as an indispensable asset — important to their lives beyond the delivery of electric service?
    • Is your cooperative actively involved in working on specific community needs? Is it taking a leadership role? List the major issues confronting the communities in your service territory and the extent of co-op involvement working on them.
    • Does your cooperative actively encourage directors and employees to be involved with community organizations? How do you support/reward that effort?
    • How many boards of community organizations do you sit on? Directors/Trustees? Employees? What are they?
    • Is your cooperative regarded as a catalyst for change in the community? Are you and your co-op regarded as leaders when it comes to improving the standard of living in the communities you serve?
    • What are you doing to keep your membership aware of what you are doing in these areas? How are you making sure they have heard you?

  • Communications Assessment

    The Council of Rural Electric Communicators (CREC) recently developed a tool for evaluating co-op communication readiness titled “Is Your Co-op Ready For ‘Always On’ Communication?” Here are a few of the questions it poses. They are a good place to begin a strategic look at your co-op’s communications program.

    • Does your cooperative provide members with advance information about any issue that may impact them, even if the news may not be popular?
    • Do your strategic plan and budgets reflect sufficient direction and support to make communication a mission-critical priority?
    • Would most 20-year-old, 45-year-old and the 70-year-old members of your cooperative agree that they find it easy to interact with your cooperative, whether in person or through the technology of their choice?
    • Does your cooperative’s communicator understand CEO sensibilities with regard to member concerns, public controversies and outside threats to you cooperative’s success?
    • Does your co-op have a plan for providing its members with communication options that are equal to or better than those offered by local banks, colleges, technical institutes, hospital and emergency management agencies?
    • Do you have a good feedback mechanism with regard to emerging member concerns, public controversies and outside threats to your co-op’s success?
    • Is your co-op actively listening for and anticipating the needs of the membership?

    Is your communicator aware of the support available via the Cooperative.com communicator’s listserv? Often the challenges he or she is facing have been experienced and resolved by one or more of the hundreds of listserv participants.

  • Tell Your Positive Story

    It is easy to assume that if you keep the lights on and electric bills reasonable, everyone will hold your cooperative in high regard. Just about any co-op CEO who has been through a local controversy will tell you that is not the case.

    What’s the good news story about your co-op that needs to be told? Examples of your co-op’s local community engagement need to be told — and told over and over again. In today’s cluttered communication landscape, breaking through with a compelling story is hard but necessary work.

    • How long has it been since you reminded everyone that because your cooperative is 100 percent locally owned by its members, more money remains in the local community?
    • What efforts do you routinely make to remind everyone in the community how many local jobs your cooperative provides?
    • Very often, cooperatives do so many things, large and small, that to those inside the cooperative it seems a matter of routine. See if you can brainstorm an exhaustive list of specific good works in which your co-op is involved. How many of your members know about them?
    • What are the things for which your cooperative is simply not getting credit?
    • What stories can you share with your members that show how their co-op works to contribute to the local economy and improve the quality of life in the communities you serve?
    • If you could teach your co-op’s members three things about what their cooperative is doing in the community, what would those three things be?
    • Use the credentials you’ve established doing community good works to move to a dialogue with your members about local quality of life issues.

    Key Messages

    • We are not-for-profit and exist to serve our members and improve the quality of life in our communities.
    • This area is our home. We are 100 percent locally owned. Jobs and money stay here.
    • We are 100 percent locally controlled and democratically governed. We were created to bring people together to identify and meet common needs. That is still our mission today.

  • Community Engagement Checklist

    CEO

    • Review the CEO communication assessment in this guide.
    • Establish goals and encourage staff to volunteer for community service work.
    • Establish goals for communication and public relations related to the co-op’s community work.
    • Prepare an “elevator speech” — a short 30-second version of your cooperative’s purpose — “Reason For Being.”
    • With the Board and staff, assess the major challenges faced by your community. Join other local groups who are engaged in the same activity.
    • Establish member advisory committees to help guide local community engagement activities.
    • Develop a policy and/or an annual plan for charitable giving.
    • Write regularly a column for the local paper about what the co-op is doing.
    • Establish and participate in “co-op meet and greet” events to talk with members.
    • Make an agreed-upon number of calls each week/month to welcome new members.
    • Recognize co-op members for outstanding community leadership and service.
    • Engage members through social media to get their opinion and feedback.
    • Maintain a dialogue with other local business leaders about community needs. Go beyond your own key accounts list. Your goal is to be known by the “movers and shakers” in your community.
    • Talk to community groups about the co-op difference and its role in improving quality of life. Keep several prepared presentations ready and up to date for use.
    • Serve on civic and local leadership boards to facilitate community development. Choose to be active in your board relationships, not becoming a member in name only.
    • Do regular media tours and interviews to stay in touch with local reporters, editors, media owners, etc.
    • Call in to a radio show to discuss the co-op’s community involvement 1-2 times a month.

    Directors/Trustees

    • With staff, assess how the co-op can help address major community challenges.
    • Help members understand how their co-op is different.
    • Know the elevator speech.
    • Host co-op member discussion groups to identify community needs and educate new members.
    • Collect feedback from members to inform the co-op’s community involvement work. Relay that information to the cooperative.

    Employees

    • Track accomplishments in the community (graduations, weddings, anniversaries, good deeds) so the CEO can call or send congratulations.
    • Assess how the co-op can help address major community challenges.
    • Build a calendar of community events that you update daily and determine who from the co-op should attend.
    • Schedule regular review sessions of community engagement operations and measure member awareness.
    • Know the elevator speech.
    • Tell your co-op story — your goal is to have the media know you. Media relations is about relationship building. Hold press conferences and invite the media to attend community events where co-op staff have a role.
    • Tell your co-op story — regularly inform members through social media, websites, local news pages in your statewide magazine, and bill stuffers about the good works of the co-op in the community. Use all the communication tools at your disposal.
    • Tell your co-op story — at the annual meeting and other forums, invite groups you have worked with to discuss the impact the co-op has had on the community.
    • Create a co-op speakers bureau and promote it with civic groups, schools and other appropriate organizations.
    • Host civic clubs in your facilities, present your story and offer a tour to attendees.
    • Organize fundraisers to help local charities.
    • Build and maintain a contact list of opinion leaders in your community: elected officials, business leaders, civic group leaders. Make sure the co-op has regular contact and dialogue with them. Be sure you are in their contact list.
    • Build and maintain a contact list of “unofficial” opinion leaders in your community; solicit feedback and stay informed about their concerns.
    • Build and maintain a contact list of key media people: reporters, editors, publishers. Know them. Keep up with their moves, changes and promotions.
    • Organize a media tour of your facilities.
    • Serve on local boards and committees to help the community get something done and represent the co-op. Encourage other employees to do the same.