The Power of Belonging: How Electric Cooperatives Can Engage Their Members

by Marcus Squier and Allyse Steffen
September 9, 2020 • 3 minute read

This article was originally published at Forbes.com.

Every one of us has an innate need to belong, to be connected and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s human nature.

With that in mind, member-centric organizations like rural electric cooperatives have an opportunity to meet their members right where they are and work together to not only power their communities, but also to make them brighter with the power of belonging.

In our work with rural electric cooperatives, we’ve found that this starts with addressing a couple of questions. First, member-centric organizations must ask themselves how they can be sensitive to such an innate need as belonging. Second, they must ask themselves how they can move members from simply being a part of the group into real participation filled with genuine partnership, positive collaboration and collective long-term value.

The Cooperative Commission

Rural electric cooperatives began as simple bands of like-minded individuals pulling together for a common purpose, but along the line, they became dedicated to a timeless mission to bring vital electricity to those across rural America. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, cooperatives provide electricity to 42 million people and serve more than 20 million businesses, homes, schools and farms across 48 states.

So with such a noble origin and massive consumer influence, why have we begun to see the perceived value proposition of the cooperative on the downward slide in recent years?

Cooperative culture is built on the idea that the membership formula equates to a valued benefit. When this equation is misunderstood, mismanaged or even nonexistent, cooperatives need to reassess the original commission and why today’s member is expecting more from their cooperative.

The key is building a sense of belonging and a clear understanding of the value proposition about why the collective exists today. “Community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter,” wrote Brian Solis, a best-selling author, speaker and global innovation evangelist at Salesforce.

Engage, Equip, Empower And Enrich

I think the obvious question for today’s rural electric cooperative has to be, “How can we reinforce the original benefits on which we were founded while building an evolved connection with members who want to feel like they belong to something that matters?”

We have found that rural electric cooperatives can approach this challenge through the optics of four key areas:

1. Engage. Be visible, consistent and relevant. Today’s membership base is looking for their cooperatives to take an active leadership role in their respective industries, drive policy that supports rural America, be immersed in the community and continuously test new methods and channels for communicating on a personal level.

2. Equip. Be awesomely helpful. Today’s consumer is overwhelmed with piles of resources, how-tos, local news and board meeting notes, but the cooperative that supplies thoughtful brand experiences, authentic content interactions and real-world tools that educate and activate the individual’s role in the cooperative’s mission will win the day.

3. Empower. Be the organization your members are proud to say they are a part of. Transparency, listening first and acting second, and unwavering stewardship of member-owned resources are basic building blocks and table stakes for any organization today. Focus on building everyday advocates across the membership with genuine brand moments that create a magnetic excitement and energy that inspires fulfilling inclusion.

4. Enrich. Rural America is diverse in so many ways and is constantly changing. Now more than ever, there are wide-open spaces for brands, just like your cooperative, to step up, support and serve the unique needs of a discerning member base. Members are expecting more from you and, dare I say, demanding more of you. Taking an active role in what motivates your members — lifestyles, businesses, communities — will pay off for generations to come.

Invest In A Movement That Matters

Many rural electric cooperatives today are well versed in the organization’s original mandate to serve the energy needs of the member-owner, followed by a long list of very important attributes like safety, local, affordability, commitment, passion, reliability, etc.

The disconnect today is that with the emergence of every new generation, the cooperative spirit is being slowly eroded. Why? I think it’s because each generation of switch-flippers continues to enjoy the many benefits of the cooperative, but in turn, they are naturally further removed from the original handshake that set in motion a movement to invest in the rural communities we have today.

Evolving your member-owners from casual consumers to passionate partners must be core to every rural electric cooperative’s mission. Are you building upon the original tenets that your cooperative was founded on to create a movement that matters?

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