This is an excerpt from the speech given by NRECA CEO Jim Matheson at the NRECA 75th Annual Meeting.
It’s said that wisdom has a thousand fathers, and I‘ve had many teachers throughout the co-op community. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) is special because we benefit first and foremost from a membership that fosters this very real sense of community. We’re deeply invested in one another’s success, and that matters to me.
I’ve seen how your informed perspective and your strong voices bring clarity to matters of policy and politics alike. Today, we’re communicating with a new Congress and a new Administration to act on our agreed-upon priorities. Together, we’re telling the world who we are and what we stand for.
Taken one at a time, each co-op is uniquely situated to respond to the circumstances in the community it serves. But taken together, electric co-ops can define the terms of engagement for an entire industry. Together we constitute a movement. And, NRECA is the national representative of that movement – a movement that now and forever belongs to its members.
It’s because we’re all co-ops. The cooperative advantage is our advantage, and we must deploy it to maximum effect.
We are still the electric cooperatives of FDR and Clyde Ellis, and yet we are very different. Today, it’s much more complex. It’s a solar array, geothermal heat pump, smart thermostat, demand-responsive water heater or an on-bill energy efficiency loan. And this means we need more information than ever before to be successful in the energy business. We have to build on our relationships with our members. We need the tools, resources, partnerships and plans to reach them.
And this unique direction in which our industry is heading plays right to our strengths as cooperatives. We are much more than poles and wire companies. We are in the relationship business. We always have been. The special relationship we have with members is the foundation for our success, as we take on a rapidly changing marketplace.
We know the wellspring of our credibility isn’t in Washington. Over the course of the last year, our membership has rallied behind a central idea of our democracy and a central component of the co-op, through the Co-ops Vote program.
In this election, voter turnout in rural areas captured real intensity even as turnout waned in cities and suburbs. Our programs were always non-partisan and non-political – but the outcome is inarguable. Co-op votes are important, and co-op issues matter.
We have the attention of elected officials who now know one thing they perhaps did not know before – ignore the voters in rural communities at your own risk. The people in power, and anyone who wants to be, must hear you.
You know the needs of your communities better than anyone. And you’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves to help meet those needs. The same sense of urgency that led cooperatives to form NRECA in the first place must compel us to move forward into that kind of relevance in the new politics of today.
There is a grassroots, populist movement across the country that wants change from business as usual in Washington. This new energy – and this new approach – play to our strengths, because we are a grassroots movement as well. We want co-ops to have the freedom to innovate and the flexibility to respond to members.
And, all over Washington, the new focus on rural America plays to our strengths best of all. We want to make it clear that the good of the co-op and the good of the community are one and the same.
These aren’t partisan issues, and this isn’t necessarily what makes the headlines these days, but this administration has already shown it is willing to listen to us… and the people in the communities we serve.
No one else can tell the story we can tell, and there’s no time like now to tell it.
We all care about the same thing: It’s the members. It’s their community. It’s their cooperative. It’s their legacy.
People who carried lanterns through darkness formed a cooperative. They brought electric light to their homes, and their neighbors’, until they reached the end of the line – where no one would go before.
So much is changing, and yet one thing remains constant. It’s our steadfast confidence that cooperatives make a better future possible for the people who form them.