by Richard E. Chapin, Ph.D.

This Advisor gives an interested citizen with an innovative public service idea an opportunity to present his case to our readers

In the 1980s the Palmetto Electric Company in Hilton Head, South Carolina, began a program through which its members may “round up” their electrical bill payments to the next highest dollar. The difference between the amount of the bill and the rounded-up payment is donated to charitable programs in the cooperative’s service area. The idea is that if giving is relatively painless, in terms of the amount, and practically effortless besides, many people will be willing to participate.

The name of the South Carolina program, Operation Roundup, has been registered as a trademark and is licensed to other co-ops. Two electric cooperatives in Michigan have adopted the program: Tri-County Electric Cooperative (Portland) and Oceana Electric Cooperative (Hart). In addition, Cherryland Electric Cooperative of Traverse City is considering such a step. I propose that the program, which I informally call “Change for the Community,” be embraced by other utilities in Michigan.

What is the Program?

Through Change for the Community, utility customers may opt to pay their utility bills to the next highest dollar. The resulting “change”—the money ordinarily returned when a payment exceeds the amount due—will be distributed by an administering body to such community charitable activities as food banks, homeless assistance, literary projects, and youth and senior-citizen activities. In every community there are many worthy service programs that help make it a better place in which to live.

Why Utilities?

Although any type of business may participate in a round-up program, utilities are ideal: Collectively, they reach virtually every household, and their bills generally are of an amount sufficient to avoid having the “change” seem too significant a percentage of the total (the “change” would average 50 cents a month). Also, whereas retailers would have to explain the program over and over again at the cash register, utilities can print the explanation on their billing form.

Most utilities have a public service component, and many already have endeavors that support people in need. An example is Consumers Power’s “The People Care” program, through which the utility helps the Salvation Army with its work. I do not envisage a Change for the Community program replacing or detracting from such efforts; I do see it as involving more customers in caring and giving. The Salvation Army no doubt will receive “Change” funds in many locales, enabling it to extend its helping hand to even more people.

Utilities may serve a wider area than a single community. In such cases, funds from the program would be used for programs only in the local area from which the funds are generated.

To reach the most donors—and ultimately help the most people who need it—all utilities in a community should be encouraged to support the program. In the Lansing area, for example, this includes the Board of Water and Light, Consumers Power, Ameritech, TCI Cable, Continental Cable, and East Lansing/Meridian Water and Sewerage Services.

How Will Utility Customers Participate?

Participating utilities will announce the program to their customers and ask them to take part. Customers can be asked to sign an agreement form (this is referred to as a positive checkoff) that remains in effect until the customer states in writing that s/he wishes to discontinue participation. The other alternative is to notify the customers that their bills automatically will be rounded up unless the customer takes action such as returning a form (this is a negative checkoff).

Most of the cooperatives engaged in Operation Round-up use the negative checkoff. The numbers are interesting—using a negative checkoff generates about 85 percent participation, the positive checkoff about 5 percent.

How Much “Change” Will Be Raised?

Again, using Lansing as an example, I estimate that if only the Board of Water and Light were involved, nearly half a million dollars would be raised annually. The board’s 1994 annual report shows the utility has more than 90,000 electric customers. If 85 percent opt in, there would be 76,500 customers giving an average of 50 cents each—a total of $38,250 a month and $459,000 a year. If more than one utility became involved, the help the Lansing area can give to worthy causes is even more impressive, and if the program were to be implemented statewide, the potential for good is astonishing.

Who Will Administer the Funds?

There are more than fifty community foundations in Michigan, covering the entire state. I propose that these foundations administer the award of Change for the Community funds. Foundation leaders are local people—they can assure that funds are dispersed in the geographic area from which they are raised, identify people whose needs are not being met by government or eleemosynary programs, respond quickly to emerging needs in the community, and identify local programs that are innovative, efficient, and effective. Funds may, of course, be administered any number of ways, but using an existing and proven fund-allocating mechanism seems to me to be the practical course to follow.

What Can You Do?

Express your support for establishing a Change for the Community program in your area. Readers are encouraged to show support for the program by copying this Advisor and sending it to your local utilities with your next payment. Community governments, public service, media, and resident support also provide impetus, so send copies as well to your local officials, community leaders, and the media and let them know you support a Change program. Bring the concept to the attention of as many people and groups as possible.

With government program cutbacks and tax changes that negatively affect giving, we need to find innovative ways to involve more people in giving and enable them to do it conveniently and without financial hardship to themselves. I think a “Change” program meets these criteria. Let’s give it a try.

I’ll be happy to receive your comments and suggestions. I can be contacted at:

2539 Koala Drive
East Lansing, MI 48823
(517) 332-1410
FAX (517) 432-2611

Public Sector Consultants Inc., grants permission for this publication to be copied.

Copyright © 1997

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