Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way.
Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. (Photo courtesy Adam Schwartz)

Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, regional, national, and international structures.

—International Cooperative Alliance

Electric co-ops have long understood the value of cooperative principle six: Cooperation Among Cooperatives. Our mutual-aid pacts are ample evidence of that.

Over our history, we’ve worked together to confront more widespread challenges as well. For example, we formed G&Ts and service co-ops like the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, the National Information Solutions Cooperative, SEDC, Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, Cooperative Response Center, and the regional supply co-ops when a need for these entities arose. These efforts were all spearheaded by visionary co-op leaders who understood that cooperating with other co-ops made sound business sense.

A more recent example is a project concluded in 2015 that brought 12 electric co-ops in southern Minnesota together to form Southern Minnesota Energy Co-op, which bought out Alliant Energy, an investor-owned utility that was no longer interested in serving the region. Now 43,000 residents and businesses are no longer customers but members of one of the co-ops involved in the project.

Among the many built-in advantages of solving problems using principle six is it means that we are ultimately partnering with organizations that share our values. As electric cooperatives, we’ve grown comfortable working with other electric co-ops. But is it time to take a broader view?

I think it is.

There are numerous opportunities to extend the inherent benefits of cooperation among cooperatives by looking for partnerships with co-ops in other sectors. Food co-ops, supply co-ops, credit unions; these are like-minded, locally owned organizations that can help us support our regional economies, provide needed services, and strengthen and extend the cooperative philosophy.

Prince George Electric Co-op in Virginia partnered with the local Fort Lee Credit Union to create programs that enhance financial literacy—something that helps members pay their electric bills on time—along with energy efficiency and charitable causes.

In 2011, Central Indiana Power merged with Hancock Telecom to form NineStar Connect utility cooperative. Using their combined strength, they offer electricity, broadband internet, telephone, digital TV, home security, and even water and wastewater services.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, Basin Electric Power Cooperative (G&T) helped start the BisMan Food co-op, a community-owned grocery store, and provided incentives for its employees to join.

Holly Fearing, founder of the Dane Cooperative Alliance, a cross-sector business association for co-ops in Madison, Wisconsin, says the possibilities for co-op partnerships are endless.

“For just about every product or service provided by a cooperative, there is an opportunity for a co-op in another sector to add value or extend community benefits,” she says. “I see it all the time: Co-ops in totally unrelated markets get together and suddenly find ways that they can enhance one another’s local impact.”

There’s no question electric cooperatives know the value of cooperation, but we limit our potential to do good if we only look to other electric cooperatives to partner with. It’s time to broaden our view and take principle six to the next level.

Legal note: When cooperating with other cooperatives, electric co-ops should ensure that their activities are permitted by their electric cooperative (or similar) act and that they do not violate state or federal antitrust laws.

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can email him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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