Beyond The Electricity: Inside Cherryland Cares
By Ross Boissoneau | Jan. 12, 2020
Cherryland Electric Cooperative is best known as a local utility, providing electric service to 36,000 northwestern lower Michigan customers. But it has also developed a reputation among nonprofits in the region as a legitimate benefactor. In 2019 alone, Cherryland (and its members) gave out 17 grants for a total of $54,950 through its Cherryland Cares program. Since its inception in 2006, it has given out 225 grants totaling $520,000.
“Through Cherryland Cares, our members are able to use their spare change to make a big impact in our community by supporting the work of our many amazing local nonprofits,” says Rachel Johnson, member relations manager.
The concept is simple: Cherryland members (customers) may elect to have their monthly utility bill rounded up to the next dollar. That overage is collected and disbursed quarterly to nonprofits. Any nonprofit can apply to be a recipient as long as it is located in or does business in a county in which Cherryland provides energy. That includes Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Wexford, Benzie, Manistee and Kalkaska counties.
The program actually began in 1997 as the Community Giving Fund. After Tony Anderson arrived as the cooperative’s new general manager, the program was revised into its present format. “It was focused more on individual needs. I could see the impact we could have in a different way,” Anderson says, by not giving to a single person but to entities that could collectively impact hundreds or thousands.
“The idea didn’t start here,” says Johnson. The concept first came to life in 1989 at Palmetto Electric Trust in South Carolina. The trust has contributed more than $7.8 million in grants. Today, almost 85 percent of Palmetto’s 75,000 members participate in Operation Round Up.
That’s not yet the case here. Approximately 4,400 of the coop’s 36,000 members are part of Cherryland Cares. On average, the program costs a participating customer approximately $6 per year.
Also adding to the funding is patronage capital that Cherryland has tried to return to its members but has gone unclaimed. All told, the Cherryland Cares fund brings in approximately $55,000 per year. “It flies under the radar. That’s fine,” says Anderson, though he admits he’d like to see it expand. “We just want to grow it bigger.”
The progam's board is a group of five volunteer Cherryland members representing different regions of its service territory (one for Grand Traverse and Kalkaska, one for Leelanau, and one for Benzie, Manistee, and Wexford counties, as well as two at-large members).
The group meets quarterly to discuss recent applicants. Johnson says the grant application is extensive and includes a review of the nonprofit’s financials, its project, other funding sources, and other items that speak to the impact and sustainability of the initiative.
“Requests are limited to those that make their services available to our members or within our service territory,” she says. There is no set budget per quarter, nor minimum number of grantees; the only rule is the board cannot disburse more than it has on hand. “It really depends on the number of applications received and the fit for the grant program,” says Johnson.
Among the grants given in 2019:
· $2,500 to Leelanau County Cancer Foundation to provide non-medical financial aid to cancer patients
· $4,000 to Betsie Valley Community Center to provide equipment for a dental van that will provide mobile dental cleanings and screenings throughout rural, economically-disadvantaged communities
· $7,100 to Goodwill for a commercial oven replacement that will support both the Goodwill Inn and the Meals on Wheels program
· $3,000 to TART Trails Recycle-A-Bicycle program to repair and refurbish used bicycles and then give them to homeless and economically-disadvantaged members of the community.