In this season of giving thanks, electric cooperatives—and the communities they serve—can be thankful for a uniquely Wisconsin organization that enables co-ops to maximize their efforts in abiding by the seventh co-op principle, “Concern for Community.”
The Federated Youth Foundation (FYF) is a nonprofit organization formed in 1971 to administer a trust that Wisconsin co-ops of all kinds, including electric co-ops, use to support a wide variety of community projects.
“Our funding comes from unclaimed capital credits—or patronage—from cooperatives of all sorts, and what we then do in turn is provide that money back to the communities where it came from,” explained Ethan Giebel, FYF’s executive director. “That is done in the form of scholarships, which are the biggest piece of it, but then also charitable giving in the form of gifts to police departments, libraries, all sorts of nonprofit organizations, food pantries, and the list goes on and on.”
The result: In fiscal year 2020-21, FYF funds provided for 676 college scholarships and 215 charitable contributions, for a total of $992,910 in funds distributed in co-op communities throughout Wisconsin.
Capital Credits at the Core
The unclaimed capital credits that fund FYF reflect another co-op principle, “Members’ Economic Participation,” which states that members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, their cooperative’s capital. Some of this capital is retained to offset operating expenses, and anything beyond the cost of doing business and maintaining a healthy balance is allocated to members based on energy use. The allocations are retired on a rotating basis determined by each cooperative’s board of directors, as financial conditions allow, and the capital credits are eventually returned to the members in the form of a check or bill credit.
Inevitably, some of these capital credits cannot be returned, either because a member has moved off the co-op’s lines without leaving a forwarding address, or a member has died without indicating a rightful heir. Whatever the reason, co-ops make a diligent effort to find all members who are owed capital credits, but some simply remain unclaimed.
Prior to 1955, these unclaimed capital credits were treated like dormant bank accounts that had to be forfeited to the state treasury after a certain number of years. A change in law enabled co-ops to retain these funds and use them for educational purposes; that’s when many of the co-ops launched the college scholarship programs that are offered today.
This statute was later repealed, prompting cooperatives to establish a trust in 1971 into which the claims could be deposited. The trust, which became FYF, enabled the co-ops to continue using the unclaimed funds for local scholarships, but the money still wasn’t fully protected. That happened a little over 10 year later, when cooperatives submitted an updated version of Chapter 185, the basic law governing co-ops. This new version included a provision protecting co-ops from forfeiting their unclaimed capital credits if their bylaws provided that the money be used for “charitable or educational purposes.” The revision was signed into law in 1985, solidifying cooperatives’ ability to put unclaimed capital credits to good use in their local communities.
FYF has aided in that effort by managing the trust so the funds can grow and do as much good as possible.
“Co-ops are able to build up their account as they wish so they can do something big at some point, if that’s what they choose to do,” Giebel pointed out, adding that many prefer instead to make more modest, but frequent donations to multiple local projects.
Each co-op has its own system for determining when and how its FYF funds will be utilized. Applications are submitted to the FYF board of directors, which ensures that the project meets the requirements of being educational or charitable in nature.
Scholarships and More
College scholarships for member students still account for a majority of the FYF-funded projects. The foundation’s 2021 annual report indicated that it distributed back more than $622,800 for scholarships to members in fiscal year 2020–21. However, FYF funds can be used for charitable contributions as well.
“With Jackson Electric, we try to use the Federated Youth funds as much as we can rather than take anything from the general funds for donations,” said Jackson Electric Cooperative’s Carol Blaken. As member relations manager at Jackson Electric and also secretary-treasurer of the FYF board of directors, Blaken is involved with both sides of FYF requests—applying for them and evaluating them for approval.
“For charitable giving, that’s really a broad definition,” she said. “You just need to be able to justify that you’re using the money for some kind of community organization, or justify the educational value of the donation.”
For example, she said Jackson Electric uses FYF funds to purchase livestock at the county fair. “We justify it as education for these youth because they’re involved in 4-H and FFA, and they are learning about their projects, they’re learning about finances, they’re learning about marketing their product, they’re learning about public relations,” she explained.
Utilizing FYF for such donations, she added, keeps the money in the community, where it was accrued.
“It’s not the co-op’s money,” she pointed out. “It’s the members’ money, so we put it back into the community.”
EV Emergency Education
Among the more recent, unique uses of FYF funds was an EV Emergency Training program for first responders hosted by Dunn Energy Cooperative at the co-op’s headquarters in Menomonie last month. Held over two evenings in October to accommodate all 19 emergency-response entities within the co-op’s service territory, the program attracted about 70 people each night. It included training in electric vehicle identification, fire suppression, extrication, and stabilization.
“It’s all very unique for EVs because of the battery and the way they start on fire,” said Jolene Fisher, Dunn Energy’s director of member and employee engagement. “The fire suppression is different with an EV than it is with a typical combustion engine, so you would go about it differently.”
With a noticeable uptick in EV use in the area over the past year, Fisher saw a need for this kind of training in the Dunn County area. She had even been approached by the local fire department a year earlier, inquiring about training, but at the time resources for such training were limited.
She and her firefighter husband attended a training session in a neighboring county and found the information useful and necessary, but the presentation a bit heavy on talking and light on actually doing. “I just thought, ‘We can do so much better than this,’” Fisher said.
She did some research and found what she was looking for in EVsafe, a company based in Mequon that prepares first-responder teams to work with electric vehicle and electric infrastructure emergencies through hands-on, interactive training.
“The really nice part of this is we got a little ‘Cooperation Among Cooperatives’ [sixth Co-op Principle] worked in too,” Fisher said, noting that neighboring Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative loaned its Rivian for the event, so participants could work with a variety of EV models.
Picking up STEAM
Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative (CWEC) in Iola recently used FYF funds to launch another unique program, this one focused on the schools within the co-op’s four-county service territory. Brenda Mazemke, CWEC’s manager of member relations, had learned of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) grant program offered by neighboring Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative and brought the idea to her own co-op for discussion. The CEO and board of directors were in favor of the program and decided to expand it even further, adding an arts component to the grant’s education mix.
“We wanted to add the art piece to it because we know how important art is to kids,” Mazemke said. “It helps them release some of their energies and relate to different concepts, so we were pretty excited to make it a STEAM grant rather than just a STEM grant.”
The grant was initially offered to five public school districts within the CWEC service area for STEAM-related projects, with the stipulation that the project must benefit as many students as possible.
Within just a few weeks of advertising the grant, the co-op received three applications from three separate schools: one for a super mileage vehicle students in the technology department would build from the ground up, learning about engineering and manufacturing in the process; another for an energy bike to be used in the science department and tech lab, teaching kids about electricity generation, fabrication design, and engineering; and a third for an urban search-and-rescue robot that students would design and build in the science and technology departments and then use to perform predetermined functions at Skills USA competitions.
CWEC’s Operation RoundUp board, which has been tasked with reviewing STEAM grant applications, approved them in October.
Mazemke said the co-op plans to evaluate the STEAM grant program after a year and determine whether it should be expanded to include other schools.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “Helping out the schools is so important right now. Their funds are really limited so anything we can do to help educate the kids is really important to us.”
Literacy Boost for Little Ones
Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services (PPCS) in Ellsworth is using FYF funds to promote childhood literacy with the help of Dolly Parton. Yes, that Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL) is a grassroots literacy program created by the country music star that provides one new, free book each month to any child from birth to age 5 within a participating affiliate’s area. Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives entered into a collaboration with DPIL in 2020 through which electric co-ops can launch a DPIL affiliate in their own communities. Liz Gunderson, communications coordinator at PPCS, watched a webinar about the program and knew it would be a good fit for her co-op.
“I watched that and thought, ‘This just screams Commitment to Community,’ ” Gunderson said. “We do a lot with scholarships for high school kids and college-age kids, and this is basically a type of scholarship for younger kids, to get them ready for school.”
Gunderson began setting up a non-profit organization to oversee the program, as DPIL requires all affiliates to be non-profit groups and electric cooperatives are not-for-profit organizations. Establishing a non-profit group can be a lengthy process, and the co-op was eager to get the program started, so Gunderson reached out to Giebel at FYF to see if the foundation would serve as the non-profit affiliate in the interim. Giebel readily agreed, filled out the necessary paperwork, and PPCS was approved as an affiliate within five days. The co-op held its DPIL launch party in August 2021.
In accordance with DPIL’s requirements that affiliates offer the program to all children from birth to age 5 within their chosen territory, PPCS set up its program in Pierce and Pepin counties, where the majority of the co-op’s members live.
Families sign their children up for the program online, and each child is mailed an age-appropriate book once a month for five years, starting with simple board books and picture books for babies and toddlers and ending with a book entitled “Kindergarten, Here I Come” for the month the child turns 5. DPIL pays for the books, and the affiliate pays cost of the postage, which PPCS covers with its FYF funds. DPIL handles the actual mailing process.
Riverland Energy Cooperative makes numerous donations each year to a wide variety of community projects. Examples of the local organizations that have benefited include the Gentle Lambs Day Care Center, which used its grant for the purchase of automated external defibrillators, and the Arcadia Hummingbirds 4-H Club, which used its grant for materials to make fleece blankets that the 4-H’ers then donated to hospitals, emergency services, and day cares.
PPCS currently has 714 children enrolled in the program, with 102 having already “graduated.” With census data indicating there are approximately 2,500 children up to age 5 in Pierce and Pepin counties, PPCS’ program has already exceeded the DPIL’s estimate of 20 percent participation in an affiliate’s first year.
“I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from families that are involved,” Gunderson said. “They’re so excited when the books come, and the books themselves are just wonderful.”
The Small Things
Some FYF-funded donations are smaller in scale, but large in impact due to the number of them. Riverland Energy Cooperative, for example, made about 50 FYF-funded donations within its service territory in 2021, contributing to everything from county fair needs, new scoreboards, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, school booster clubs, and 4-H projects, “pretty much anything involving kids,” according to Beth Alesch, Riverland’s manager of communications.
Price Electric Cooperative takes a similar approach, supporting multiple community projects that enhance life in the co-op’s northern Wisconsin communities. Price Electric’s 2022 FYF donations have supported a wide variety of local organizations including Price Ice Youth Hockey, which got new jerseys (sporting the co-op’s logo) and socks; the Northwoods Players, a community theater organization that’s raising money for auditorium upgrades; Huey’s Hideaway, a children’s museum in nearby Medford for updates to the museum’s STEM room; and the Glidden Area Development Corporation, which is building a new pavilion at the Gordon Lake Beach.
Whatever the contribution—whether it’s modest or major; directed toward senior citizens or preschoolers; used for facilities, festivals, or food donations—co-ops are investing FYF funds in their local communities, making them better places to live. It’s just another way electric cooperatives stand on principle.—Mary Erickson