More than 250 electric co-ops nationwide are putting the principle of “Concern for Community” into action by giving members the opportunity to round up their electricity bills to the next dollar. All that spare change has raised several hundred million dollars for charitable causes nationwide. Reed Karaim wrote this story for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association about the program’s 25th anniversary:
It was one of those ideas that wake you up in the middle of the night.
Tom Upshaw had been CEO of Palmetto Electric Cooperative in Hardeeville, South Carolina for about five years, and he had been watching the local investor-owned utility act aggressively toward neighboring co-ops, trying to encroach on their territory. Upshaw had been contemplating things Palmetto Electric could do to strengthen the bonds with its members and the communities the co-op served.
Probably sometime around 4 a.m., he says, “I just woke up, and I don’t know where it came from, but there it was.”
The idea was Operation Round Up®, a program that gives members the option of having their bills rounded up to the nearest dollar every month, with those extra few cents going to benefit people in need within the co-op’s service territory.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Round Up, and what started with a middle-of-the-night idea at one co-op has grown into a nationwide program with 252 electric co-ops using the name. And all that spare change has added up to several hundred million dollars in assistance to charitable causes around the country.
Looking back, Upshaw, who recently retired from Palmetto Electric, can’t quite believe how Operation Round Up has grown. “I just had no idea that it would have this kind of impact, not only on the people in our service area but statewide and nationally,” he says. “We’ve even gotten inquiries from Canada and Australia from people who have heard about the program.”
The help co-ops have provided through Operation Round Up is an enduring embodiment of the co-op principle of “Concern for Community,” proving for more than a quarter century that those are more than just words.
In those early days, Palmetto Electric established some key rules for Operation Round Up that the majority of co-ops have followed since. Upshaw and the co-op’s board of directors decided to set up a separate entity, the Palmetto Electric Trust Board, that would decide how to disburse the donations. The co-op also decided assistance would not be restricted to co-op members but could be provided to anyone or any group within its service territory.
Those decisions were intended to remove any doubt about the selfless intent of the program and make clear it would not be manipulated to the co-op’s benefit, says Jimmy Baker, Palmetto’s vice president of Marketing & Public Relations. That approach has proven to be one of Operation Round Up’s greatest strengths, helping to ensure popular support while spreading the benefits far and wide.
Palmetto Electric originally saw Operation Round Up as a local effort, but as Upshaw and other staff talked about the program with colleagues at neighboring co-ops, it sparked interest. According to South Carolina incorporation records, Coastal Electric Cooperative in Walterboro, South Carolina, was the second co-op to join in, starting its program in October of 1991. Others throughout South Carolina and the Southeast soon followed.
As it became clear the idea was spreading, Palmetto Electric faced a decision. It had copyrighted the name and had a vested interest in making sure the reputation of the program was protected. But co-op leaders also knew it had the potential to help a lot of people across the co-op nation. They decided on an approach consistent with the generous nature of the program: share Operation Round Up with any co-op that would stay true to its principles.
A couple years after it began, then NRECA CEO Bob Bergland gave the program a big boost when he mentioned it in his address at the association’s Annual Meeting. Bergland also visited Palmetto Electric to get a first-hand look at its operation. “Then, NRECA stepped up and helped us produce a video as well as a brochure with information and details about it, and that was the first thing we would send out when people inquired,” Baker says.
Now, when a co-op asks about starting its own Operation Round Up, Palmetto Electric requests that it write a permission letter in which the co-op commits to using the money for charitable purposes. Then, for a fee of $5, Palmetto Electric provides a copy of its trust board’s bylaws, logos, the forms used for applications, and other materials to help a co-op establish its own program.
“We’ve never turned down a co-op that has wanted to adopt [the program] as long as they commit to spending the money on charitable purposes,” Upshaw says.
As Operation Round Up has spread, it’s also attracted the attention of utilities and businesses outside the co-op community. “It’s been copied by other companies,” Upshaw notes. “They keep the idea and put their own name to it, which is fine. The idea is that they’re helping people.”
Today, co-ops across the United States can share myriad stories about how Operation Round Up has helped people.
One of the early grants from Operation Round Up at Palmetto Electric helped put in a helicopter pad for a local hospital, Baker recalls. Another went to set up a 9-1-1 call system for a county in its service area that didn’t have one.
“The biggest thing, I think, is that we’ve helped a lot of individuals,” Upshaw says. “We’ve helped them make house payments. We’ve sent them to the dentist to get dental repairs. We’ve put roofs on houses. We’ve put wheelchair ramps on houses. If a family really needed something, we tried to help them with it.”
As the program expanded, other co-ops began to get creative with the ways they used Operation Round Up donations. North Carolina co-ops started the “Bright Ideas” program, which awards grants to teachers for creative classroom projects that their schools otherwise would not be able to afford.
Educational aid for local students also became a big part of the program at many co-ops. “We give out in excess of $50,000 a year just in scholarships,” says Dan Brown, CEO of Cuivre River Electric Cooperative in Troy, Missouri, which started its Operation Round Up program in 1997. “When you see the smiles on those kids’ faces, whether they’re getting $1,000 or $500, you know it’s worthwhile.”
Targeting gaps in community services is another popular choice. “We always wanted to try to do things that made a real difference, to spread the money so we touched the most lives. For example, when you use the money to buy a Jaws of Life machine for a local fire department, that helps a lot of people,” says J. Mark Bolton, vice president of Marketing & Communications at Coastal Electric Cooperative in Midway, Georgia, an early Operation Round Up participant. “It’s not that the individual grants aren’t important, but when you do something like a grant to bring new technology into a classroom, you’re doing something that helps this year and the next and the next.”
Crow Wing Power, based in Brainerd, Minnesota, dedicates its biggest annual grant to jump-starting a worthwhile effort. “We have what we call an ‘impact grant’ that we do once a year. It can be to start a program; it can be to start an entirely new organization,” says Jolene Jensen, Crow Wing Power’s public relations coordinator.
The Crow Wing Power Community Trust Board, which disburses Operation Round Up contributions, can award up to $12,000 for an impact grant, “which is huge for these organizations,” Jensen notes. The grant was awarded to “Bridges of Hope,” which provides assistance to the needy, when the organization wanted to open its own thrift store to become more sustainable. Another grant recipient was the Pine River–Backus Family Center, which was taking over a charitable food pantry and hoped to provide more fresh produce to its clients. Still, as Upshaw notes, many of the most heartwarming stories of what the program has accomplished involve individual recipients.
When the Tackett family’s home outside Bellevue, Ohio, burned down in a fire, Arville and Lavenia Tackett and their six children were left with little but the clothes on their backs. North Central Electric Cooperative in Attica, Ohio, stepped up with a $1,000 emergency grant from its “People Fund,” financed through Operation Round Up. The grant allowed the family to buy food, clothing and other basic necessities in the days after the disaster. The People Fund also provided $2,000 to help the Tacketts rent a new home.
In another part of Ohio, when 80-year-old George Earhart’s water pump went out, he couldn’t afford the $900 cost of a replacement. He called his local co-op, Union Rural Electric Cooperative in Marysville, for help and was told the Operation Round Up committee was meeting that night and would hear his request. But Earhart was waiting for Meals on Wheels to bring his dinner and couldn’t get into town to fill out his application. So co-op employees Cindy Stoppa and Tim Sherwood drove to Earhart’s home to help him fill out the application, and they delivered it back to the committee in time to make sure his water pump was replaced as soon as possible.
Baker says it’s these small but meaningful acts of charity that can help seal the relationship between a co-op and the communities it serves. “You’d be hard pressed to find someone in our three-county area that hasn’t been impacted either directly or indirectly by Operation Round Up” over the past 25 years, Baker says. None of it, he adds, would be possible without the members who agree to have their bills rounded up each month.
$6 a year
When Palmetto Electric started Operation Round Up, it decided on an “opt-out” approach, meaning members had to ask to be excluded. To make sure members wouldn’t be caught by surprise, Palmetto Electric publicized the program heavily before starting, providing several easy options for members to decline if they wished. But participation still came in around 80 percent, and “it’s been pretty consistent in the 25 years since,” Baker says.
Not all co-ops use the opt-out approach, but those that do generally have higher participation—80 percent or higher is not unusual—than co-ops with “opt-in” programs.
Cuivre River Electric has had a participation rate of around 90 percent since it first started its Operation Round Up in 1997. “I think one of the reasons is because we do a good job of communicating the results,” CEO Brown says. “Every month we show pictures of where the money has gone in our newsletter.”
When Coastal Electric was starting its Operation Round Up, Bolton says, the co-op wanted to make certain “people didn’t feel like they had been bullied or trapped into participating.” So they provided a variety of options for members to opt out, including a prepaid post and an easy number to call. But when they called, Bolton took the time to explain the program and why the co-op thought it was important. “Believe it or not, we had a surprising number of people call us back and ask, ‘Is it too late to get back in?’” he says.
On average, a member donates about $6 a year by having his or her bills rounded up. It’s a small amount, but with participation rates of 80 percent or more, it quickly adds up. As the programs have become established and their benefits publicized, co-ops have also found additional donations coming in. Some members have left part of their estates to Operation Round Up, while others have donated capital credits.
Looking ahead, many of those now involved with Operation Round Up at different co-ops say they hope more will sign on in the future. “The whole concept of an electric co-op was people coming together to do for themselves what they couldn’t do individually,” Bolton says. “I think you can see that spirit is still alive today. My $6 may not make a bit of a difference individually, but together with the other 15,000 members, that’s real money and something that can make a difference—just as we first did 75 years ago.”