Serious Green: Utilities have given millions back to the region

You know them for electricity or natural gas.

But local utilities give back big to the Grand Traverse region – more than $833,600 last year alone benefiting community and residents.

In visible and not-so-visible ways Consumers Energy Co., DTE Energy Co., Cherryland Electric Cooperative and Traverse City Light & Power have each impacted community and residents.

From the finances of the Goodwill Inn, early childhood development efforts, the green footprint of the National Cherry Festival, food security of schoolchildren, business growth, or energy-assistance awareness and support, utilities are making a difference.

“There’s this legacy of giving that utilities have made integral to their organizational mindset, to give back,” said Becky Ewing, executive director of Rotary Charities of Traverse City. “They’re definitely a key partner of ours, as we think about raising the quality of life for everyone in our region.”

Take the Consumers Energy Foundation, whose $2.5 million in contributions to the region since the statewide foundation’s 1991 inception include a multi-year commitment of some $300,000 thus far to the 5toONE early childhood development project. Part of the Great Start Collaborative of Traverse Bay, the region’s early childhood initiative, 5toONE seeks increase family participation in programs and services that improve early childhood outcomes.

“Early childhood is really a business imperative,” said Carolyn Bloodworth, the Consumers Foundation’s secretary/treasurer. Preparing “the smallest citizens of the community to be ready to succeed” when they get to school, she said, “is an investment in our future.”

The foundation has been a major corporate sponsor of 5toONE. Initial grants helped pay for a consultant to develop the design of a model network, a project manager who focused on building partnerships with organizations and engaging parents, creation of communication materials and other items, said Mary Manner, Great Start Collaborative coordinator.

The 5toONE project has led to at least 10 neighborhood centers throughout the region where, hosted by local organizations like libraries, schools, churches, businesses and nonprofits, there are free play groups that allow children to interact and develop skills. The centers also host parent meetings and other activities.

A $50,000 Consumers Foundation grant announced earlier this year is being used toward launching another element: 5toONE@WORK. It’s an effort to engage parents in the workplace and build partnerships with area businesses to improve access to child care and early childhood programs and services that can help working parents learn more about child development, improve their parenting skills and expand knowledge, Manner said.

She said the foundation’s funding has been integral to 5toONE’s ability to build connections among parents, organizations and resources.

“So much of what we’re able to do, because of funding from Consumers Energy, is out in the community,” Manner said.

Consumers’ foundation focuses on three areas of investment – people, planet and prosperity – and evaluates requests on need, projected impact and outcomes, among other criteria. With requests often beyond available dollars, decisions can be difficult, said Bloodworth, who is also executive director of corporate giving for Jackson-based Consumers Energy and parent CMS Energy Corp.

“It’s very hard to say no to a good project,” she said.

Last year in the Grand Traverse region, grant requests totaled about $470,000, compared with the $270,000 awarded, Bloodworth said. That’s out of about $5.5 million awarded statewide.

While the majority of the foundation’s grants are between $1,000 and $10,000, many go well beyond that, Bloodworth said. In the Grand Traverse region, that’s included: $90,000 to Venture North Funding & Development’s capital needs in 2016 and $50,000 this year to support the organization’s professional services provider program that helps loan clients obtain business services; $125,000 to support structural improvements at the State Theatre; $150,000 for the Conservation Resource Alliance’s Wild Roots tree planting initiative;  and $170,000 in support of Kids Creek relocation and improvement associated with the Munson Medical Center expansion.

Desiree Worthington, Munson Healthcare’s chief development officer, said Consumers’ interest in conservation and land stewardship have overlapped with Munson’s. She said the foundation has been a partner, first in helping to fund work needed to bring the creek above ground and create a natural creek bed and other features as a precursor to Cowell Family Cancer Center construction, and later with another grant “continuing the work to help us with the restoration of Kids Creek.”

The environment is also a focus of the DTE Foundation, whose support of the National Cherry Festival has included paying for the purchase of the thousands of compostable plates, bowls, utensils, cups, straws and napkins used at the festival, as well as American Waste’s services to recycle, compost, and dispose of the waste, said the festival’s Executive Director Kat Paye.

“We’re in the 90% range right now … diverting waste from landfill,” Paye said. “Our goal is zero waste. The DTE Foundation grant for us means that we can afford to do these things.”

Detroit-based DTE said the foundation has supported the Cherry Festival since 2014 and its sponsorship, which was $80,000 in both 2018 and 2019, also supports the Cherry Royale parade. Paye said the foundation dollars help offset costs of “anything it takes to put on the parade,” including barricades, signage, official personnel and the housing of visiting marching bands.

DTE Foundation President Lynette Dowler said that while the Cherry Festival is probably the foundation’s most recognizable philanthropy in the region, it’s among many organizations that receive grants aligned with the foundation’s six target areas: arts and culture, community transformation, economic progress, education and employment, environment and human needs.

She said grants generally range between $5,000 and $250,000 annually and can go to general operating budgets as well as specific programs. Criteria for evaluating requests include the nonprofit organization’s budget, sustainability and expected outcomes.

“We usually get twice as much ask than I have money to spend. And it’s hard. Because every organization is amazing,” Dowler said. “Financial stability is important, outcomes are important, reaching the populations that we want to make a difference in is important.”

DTE’s foundation has approved more than $1.3 million in grants in the region from 2013 through 2018, including more than $500,000 awarded last year. Among them: $30,000 to Grand Traverse Industries, which provides employment and training to people with disabilities and other barriers to jobs; $100,000 covering 2018 and 2019 to the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance in support of economic/community development programming; and $12,500 for the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency (NMCAA) holiday meals on wheels program.

In addition, Dowler said the foundation has been a “longstanding partner” to Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, awarding its first grant in 2006 and consistently funding the organization since 2011. Julie Povolo, Goodwill director of advancement, said the foundation’s grants so far total more than $120,500.

“You name it, they’ve done it,” she said. Povolo cited support including a food program that purchases 4-H animals for processing and supply to the Inn; a $60,000 grant over two years to assist individuals coming out of substance abuse treatment centers with work skills and job- and life-readiness; and $15,000 in both 2018 and 2019 toward operation of the Goodwill Inn, which provides emergency and transitional housing, food and essentials to about 500 homeless individuals annually.

Federal and state funds pay for a little over half of the Inn’s annual operating costs, and Goodwill needs to raise an additional $500,000 each year to cover the rest.

“Knowing that that’s an area of interest for them (the foundation) to support the population that we work with,” in a consistent manner, has been “crucial,” said Goodwill executive director Dan Buron.

At Traverse City Light & Power, funding has gone to causes that provide direct energy-related or community benefit, like NMCAA Sleep out for Warmth events raising awareness “about energy-assistance programs that help families in need throughout the winter months,” said Kelli Schroeder, TCL&P’s manager of human resources and communications.

Schroeder said that at the November 2015 Sleep Out for Warmth, one of two Sleep Outs that the utility sponsored monetarily, she and three other TCL&P employees also stayed through the night and slept in tents on the Grand Traverse County Civic Center grounds.

NMCAA appreciated TCL&P’s support of the events, said NMCAA Executive Director Kerry Baughman.

Schroeder said that as a municipal utility TCL&P’s ability to provide financial support is more limited in scope than other energy companies, but a $5,000 annual budget for sponsorships has provided $27,494 to the community since July 2014, the span through which monetary totals were available.

The utility’s sponsorships do not support advertising or general operating funds. Applicants must be nonprofit businesses or events or national organizations centered on a local or regional event, and the funding opportunity must clearly recognize TCL&P’s support.

Schroeder said TCL&P’s 2018 support included $500 to Habitat for Humanity and $3,500 toward the Michigan Clean Energy Conference hosted by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities – part of $5,500 in sponsorship funds the utility has provided to the conference over the last three years, Schroeder said.

Dan Worth, Groundwork’s clean energy program director, said TCL&P “has been an amazing partner” and was one of the original sponsors and helped get the conference “off the ground.” He said TCL&P’s funding helped Groundwork get additional money from other utilities and “elevate the conference to an important spot,” and the utility’s engagement in the event has also been valuable.

Through Cherryland Electric Cooperative, grants have helped stock food pantries, provide energy-efficient window film kits and winter boots and clothing, and support needs of children in foster care and other causes. It’s the work of Cherryland Cares – a charitable fund that awards grants to local nonprofits, fueled by contributions from the cooperative’s customers, or members (see sidebar below).

Members can choose each month to round up their electric bill to the nearest dollar – or give more – and the money goes into Cherryland Cares, for grant awards generally ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, said general manager Tony Anderson. It’s a program that has given out nearly $494,000 in grants since 2006, including $58,610 last year to 16 organizations including Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, Child & Family Services of Northwestern Michigan, TART Trails Inc., Michael’s Place, Reining Liberty Ranch and the Women’s Resource Center.

Anderson said that while the Cherryland recipients and grant uses vary, the community impact is common.

“We’re filling basic human needs,” he said.

Cherryland Cares Uses Pennies, Nickles and Dimes to Make a Difference

Last year, some 59 area schoolchildren went home with weekend food they might not have had, thanks to The Father Fred Foundation and $10,000 from a charitable fund of Cherryland Electric Cooperative.

The Cherryland Cares grant supported Father Fred’s Blessings in a Backpack program, which provides bags of nutritious, child-friendly food to students grades 1-8  in Traverse City Area Public Schools, Kingsley Public Schools and Kalkaska Public Schools who are identified as at risk for little or no food when away from the school setting.

It’s one of many grants Cherryland Cares has given throughout the region, paid for by the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that Cherryland Electric customers, or members, donate when they round up their monthly utility bill to the nearest dollar – or give more – in support of the program.

The idea began at a cooperative in another part of the country and was picked up by others including Cherryland, fitting with commitment to community, said general manager Tony Anderson.

“It’s a way to allow our members to participate with just basically pocket change,” he said.

That pocket change, from about 4,300 members who round up their bill on a monthly basis, adds up: Since records dating to 2006, the program has given out nearly $494,000 in grants. The program also receives some money from unclaimed capital credits, or excess Cherryland Electric revenue that is not claimed by members.

A five-member volunteer board from Cherryland’s service area reviews applications and awards grants on a quarterly basis, with a focus on human needs and direct and optimal impact, said Jeremy Hawke, president of the Cherryland Cares board and senior vice president and credit officer at West Shore Bank in Traverse City.

“We discuss each grant and we talk about the pluses and minuses. Somebody makes a motion to support or deny the grant or support it with some conditions, like sometimes we do matching funds or provide funds for a specific part of the grant, if it’s more than we can fund.

So there’s a lot of conversation around each one, the merits of each, and how best we feel the money should be deployed,” Hawke said.

“The further it gets spread across the community, the better.”

Grants generally range from $1,000 to $10,000; many are on the smaller end of that spectrum.

For Blessings in a Backpack, $10,000 is a significant amount in a program serving some 440 children in the 2018-2019 school year on a budget of about $75,000, said foundation executive director Deb Haase. The foundation accepts no state or federal aid and is dependent on community support of individuals, organizations and businesses.

“We were very, very fortunate to have been able to be awarded that generous grant,” she said. “We estimate that to support one student throughout the course of the school year is about $170 to $175.”

The foundation has received several other Cherryland Cares grants over the years, not only for the backpack program but also for its food pantry and covering dental needs.

Hawke said Cherryland Cares gets requests for community needs that are “across the board,” and grantmaking decisions can be difficult with limited funds.

“We’d like to support all of them, but we have to pick and choose,” he said.

And the requests for giving consistently outstrip available funds, said Anderson.

“There’s always more ask than dollars, every time,” he said.

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.