Richards and Towne: Cooperatives are in the business of strengthening communities

Cooperatives: in the business of strengthening communities

By Patty Richards and Rebecca Towne

This summer, both of our rural electric cooperatives, Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) and Washington Electric Cooperative (WEC) made grants to organizations promoting food security in our respective service territories. In seeking ways to support our members, especially during the pandemic, we wanted to offer direct benefits to people in our communities.

One volunteer at a local food shelf that received one of our grants said the donation “could not have come at a better time,” because of the spike in need. As non-profits ourselves, we are inspired to support the hard work of these other non-profits who make sure our members have access to nutritious food.

This focus on current needs is just one recent example of WEC’s and VEC’s longstanding commitment to the fabric of Vermont – to our main streets and our rural economy. We are not just in the business of electricity—we’re also in the business of strengthening communities.

Cooperatives benefit communities. It’s always true, but perhaps it’s never been as clear as it is right now. VEC and WEC are both owned and democratically controlled by our members, and are based in the communities we serve. We are autonomous, but we support each other: when a storm hits WEC territory, VEC sends crews to help, and vice versa. And we work to develop our communities in ways that support our members.

One way that WEC and VEC support our communities is through our respective Community Funds.

Both WEC and VEC members who are able to do so contribute to our Community Funds by donating their refunds of patronage capital, also called capital credits, or by rounding up their electric bills. (Patronage capital, or capital credit, is co-op members’ share of money that remains at the end of the year after we pay our operating expenses.)

Our Community Funds – which were the sources of our recent food security assistance – then make grants to fellow non-profits in our service areas that improve the well-being of our members, community and environment.

Much the way a dollar spent locally stays local, a dollar spent at a cooperative has the effect of weaving security into our communities. For instance, a co-op member who is experiencing economic hardship may benefit from the very non-profits that are supported by their own co-op’s Community Fund.

This is a healthy cycle in the best of times. Now, in a time of such great uncertainty, cooperative members can rely on the security of shared ownership, democratic control, equity, transparency, and neighbors helping neighbors.

We are grateful for the participation of our members and we especially thank those in a position to contribute to our Community Funds. We are grateful to the non-profits that are filling service gaps in order to feed and shelter our community members in need. And we are grateful to each other and our fellow cooperatives and collaborators.

A community that supports its cooperatives (and vice versa) is stronger and more resilient for it. We’re proud to be part of Vermont’s infrastructure: not only in the form of the poles and wires that bring electricity to our members, but as an autonomous, member-owned co-op community, working to keep our money in our local economy and to helping our members get through this crisis.

Patty Richards is the general manager of the Washington Electric Co-op. Rebecca Towne is the chief executive officer of the Vermont Electric Co-op.