Division A, Category 1, Community Relations 1
Power to Share Program

RESEARCH/SITUATION ANALYSIS: Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC) is a not-for-profit electric
distribution cooperative serving 195,000 customers in Southwest Florida. The local community faced severe economic challenges in 2008 spilling over to 2009. Formal research indicated that Southwest Florida led the nation in the number of foreclosures and Lee County, the most densely populated area in the LCEC service territory, hit record high averages of over 13 percent unemployment. Customers’ struggles were impacting the business in terms of rising bad debt. This was a major topic during annual LCEC strategic planning and a team was formed, including the PR team, to provide options to aid customers and help minimize the potential for electric rate increase. The team’s goal was two-fold - to assist customers having trouble paying their electric bills, because it was the right thing to do, and to positively impact the bottom line.  Informal interviews with United Way (UW) and other social service agencies and research around other energy assistance plans throughout the industry was conducted. The team introduced the LCEC Power to Share (PTS) program. The partnership between LCEC and UW, is funded through donations from those who wish to support the program. The partnership ensures that funds reach those who need them most by utilizing established UW criteria to determine eligibility. The primary target audience - those able to contribute, including employees, customers, media and once the program was established-LCEC customers needing assistance. A communication audit was conducted to identify communication methods most appropriate for each target.  

OBJECTIVES: 1) To provide LCEC customers with an energy assistance program funded through donations while fostering options for improvement of customers’ overall financial situation before the end of 2009. 2) To solicit donations of a minimum of $1,000 prior to November 31, 2009 before formally rolling out the program to customers on December 1, 2009. 3) To garner positive media coverage and integrated promotion of the program in at least three communication mediums that reach target audiences. 4) To track the progress of PTS recipients and evaluate if the program helped at least 50% get back on their feet.

IMPLEMENTATION: In April 2009, LCEC met with UW to formalize the PTS program. UW 211 would be responsible for the administration of the program and LCEC would promote awareness and solicit funds to ensure continuity. The partnership had added customer benefits because UW 211 also offers a wealth of assistance resources to improve the customer’s overall situation rather than just fund the current bill. A communication plan was developed. A challenge in the early stages of the program was to solicit donations and secure enough funding before formally launching the program. It was determined that employees and corporate donations would be solicited during a “soft” roll-out. A logo and all collateral materials were designed with the consistent PTS brand -including internal newsletter stories, emails, intranet, personalized donation request letters, rack cards, employee training sessions and talking points. Two large corporate donations and higher than expected personal donations made it possible to roll the program out early to those needing assistance.  Additional communication tools were utilized to target the critical audience, those needing the most assistance – media releases, advertisements, www.lcec.net, Facebook postings and important personal referrals by LCEC customer service reps that had first-hand knowledge of specific needy customers. Additionally, UW utilized its communication methods to further promote the program. PTS was quickly embraced and supported and customers began receiving assistance within 30 days of launching the program.

EVALUATION: 1) PTS was implemented in 2009 and at the end of January 2010, assisted 61 LCEC customers in paying their electric bills. UW was also able to provide 46 additional clients with $12,718 assistance through their other agencies. 2) By November 31, 2009 the program had exceeded goal by raising $20,360 due to two large corporate donations. At the end of January 2010, $36,275 was collected including $1,275 in private donations. PTS provided assistance to customers in the Cape Coral territory effective August 1, 2009, four months ahead of schedule. Assistance was available to customers in all service territories effective October 1, 2009, two months earlier than planned. At the end of January 2010, the PTS program distributed $14,743.52 in funds. 3) More than 3 mediums publicized PTS- 2 print publications, ads in Times of the Islands, Edison Festival program, www.lcec.net homepage, bill inserts, customer newsletters, Facebook postings, UW Web site, FoxTV link and rack cards 4) Through the end of December 2009, 72% of customers receiving assistance through the PTS program maintained electric service for more than 60 days without returning to severance/disconnection status, surpassing the goal of 50%.

BUDGET: Postage for personal contribution letters $10, Ads $1,433, News releases $0, Collateral materials produced in-house with existing resources $0 (scrap from already scheduled print jobs), PR staff & support employee time: 50 hours for planning & execution-valued at $1,025. Total expense: $2,458.00.