Giving is Power
Charitable efforts remain a driving principal at Flathead Electric.
“When a collective of local farmers and ranchers founded Flathead Electric Cooperative 85 years ago, they wanted to do more than just keep the lights on for their rural community. They also wanted to give back. It’s a philosophy that drives the local utility to this day, evidenced by their multipronged charitable efforts ranging from scholarships and blood drives to safety grants and eco-conscious innovations. Powering their community of 56,000 member households is one thing – empowering it is something else entirely.
“It’s always been an important aspect of what an electric cooperative is at its core, to provide value, not only to the members that we serve, but also to the communities that allow us to thrive,” says Katie Pfennigs, community relations manager for Flathead Electric.
Case in point is the co-op’s Roundup for Safety program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Co-op members can elect to round up their monthly power bill to the nearest dollar and those donations fund local safety projects. Flathead area nonprofits can apply for grants of up to $10,000. To date, the co-op’s board has awarded over $4.3 million in funding for over 1,200 nonprofit safety efforts.
“All we do is administer it,” Pfennigs says, “that’s all of you that are funding that every month.”
Roundup dollars were used to buy AEDs for local schools and recreational clubs, first responder trauma kits for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse, and playground lighting in Bigfork, among dozens of other initiatives.
The program has been especially helpful to the Marion Rural Fire District, providing grants for firefighting turnouts, the heavy protective clothing firefighters wear. Marion Fire District Lieutenant Jason Hill says that turnouts run about $3,000 per set and must be replaced at least every 10 years, making it out of reach for many regional volunteer departments. In 2021, the department was also awarded a $9,000 grant to buy a set of stabilization struts and a specialized airbag for lifting vehicles, which will help responders get to victims with less risk of injury to themselves.
“It gives us more tools to use to make these scenes safe and get people out of the vehicles,” Hill explains. “The number of motor vehicle accidents increases, especially through the summer.”
Roundup for Safety is just one of the many ways Flathead Electric gives back. The co-op also uses unclaimed capital credits to fund education-related projects and scholarships. The not-for-profit utility does its best to forecast exact rates for its membership, but can’t always account for factors outside of their control such as weather events or car accidents that damage power lines. When revenues exceed expenses and long-term infrastructure needs have already been met, Flathead Electric returns those excess dollars back to their members. In the event they can’t find the recipients after five years, state law permits them to reallocate that money for educational purposes. Annually, this amounts to $117,000 in scholarships for students studying in Montana, a youth trip to Washington, D.C., and local education-related efforts, such as the Evergreen sidewalk project.
The Evergreen Community Partners received a $25,000 Community Education Grant from the co-op in 2021 to build new sidewalks along Highway 2, which will provide safer access to Evergreen schools.
“The goal with our unclaimed capital credit funding is to reinvest those dollars in the community in the most impactful way possible,” Pfennigs says. The project was “an easy ‘yes’” for the co-op’s board, she adds.
Flathead Electric never stops looking for innovative ways to give back. Case in point: the Pulse Project, a blood drive with a twist. Local businesses and individuals pledge donations for each pint of blood collected and the funds raised are earmarked for co-op members in a temporary financial crisis, people who are struggling to pay their power bills due to unexpected factors like medical bills or layoffs, but don’t qualify for other low-income assistance programs.
The project, held each September, began in 2018 when co-op staff saw the need for this particular type of short-term help. They raised $13,000 in donations that first year, which helped 70 local families get through tough times, and collected a record-setting 139 pints of blood. Since its inception, the Pulse Project has generated a total of $75,000 in energy assistance funding and 468 pints of blood.
The co-op has grown substantially since the first 82 miles of line were installed back in December of 1938, a year after the utility’s inception. Their power lines now stretch some 4,500 miles, making Flathead Electric the second-largest electric utility in the state. But big or small, some things never change.
“We are owned by the members that we serve, so everything we do is to benefit those members,” Pfennigs says. “Our goal is to be a part of helping our community thrive.”
Lieutenant Jason Hill from the Marion Rural Fire District
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