Getting to age 75 isn’t easy.
It’s hard enough to do as a human being, but it’s even harder for a business or organization.
The list of businesses that became household names only to fail is seemingly endless—Enron (1932–2001), Pan Am (1927–1991), Studebaker (1852–1967) and Circuit City (1949–2009) come immediately to mind. All seemed poised for sustained success; all failed to achieve it.
Age is even tougher on nonprofits. Statistics show that only 13 percent of nonprofits make it past 60; the American Red Cross (1881) and YMCA (1844) are two well-known examples of organizations that endure. Some cooperatives have done well. There are Japanese agricultural cooperatives that date back 10,000 years, and the oldest cooperative in America, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752.
Between 2014 and 2016, each electric cooperative in South Carolina will turn 75, which is an incredible story and one that goes far beyond electricity.
Ours is a story about purpose, about vision and about a commitment to core principles that has never wavered. That commitment is why the co-op has been able to survive changing political and economic climates. It’s why the co-ops remain to this day a powerful force for their members in a marketplace that otherwise could be far less consumer friendly.
How do we know this? Let’s “truth test” the very first cooperative principle—voluntary and open membership—against today’s challenges.
Historically, this first cooperative principle allowed rural Americans access to electricity at a time when for-profit power companies refused to serve them. But what does that principle mean today, especially in an America where there’s an expectation of equality and access to services? In other words, why is it still important?
That core belief—the principle that informs all others—assures members and the rest of the world that cooperative services are for everyone and remain open to any who would join. In a stroke, the first principle eliminates the ability to refuse people for illegitimate reasons. It also gives co-ops the ability to turn people away who might seek to join for the wrong reasons, people who want to turn co-ops into something they aren’t for their own personal gain.
That value has stood the test of time and continues to do so today. It is what has made us durable.
But our security isn’t assured. Today we face fresh challenges (I prefer to call them opportunities), from technology and a new generation of distributed energy resources, such as solar, to more familiar ones, such as large storms, hurricanes and the dangers of political inaction.
To face those, we must stay true to our purpose, which isn’t simply providing electricity but rather making life better for the small towns, exurbs, suburbs and the rural areas we serve. We are stewards of that larger purpose of community service. We are bigger than our bottom line because of our principles.
Not many things make it to 75. Fewer still make it 75 more. For South Carolina’s electric cooperatives to endure well into the future, we must remain responsible to our purpose, to our principles and to our people. I believe we will.
The Seven Cooperative Principles
1. Voluntary and open membership
2. Democratic member control
3. Members’ economic participation
4. Autonomy and independence
5. Education, training and information
6. Cooperation among cooperatives
7. Concern for community