Spare change

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — By rounding up their monthly bills to the nearest dollar and earmarking the extra change for charity, customers of all utility companies in the United States could generate more than $1.5 billion a year in charitable contributions, including just over $10 million in North Carolina, a Charlotte-based nonprofit says.

The nonprofit, the Utility Customers Charitable Trust, has been encouraging utility companies and community foundations in the Southeast to work together to create roundup programs to benefit their communities.

“We’re broadening the base of citizen philanthropists and, at the same time, through their efforts, creating millions of dollars in charitable funds in an annuity-like stream,” says James C. Mabry of Winston-Salem, chair of the nonprofit’s board and retired senior vice president for investor relations at Wachovia Corp.

While the nonprofit has not yet persuaded any utility company to establish a roundup program, its officials initially are focusing on firms serving coastal states in the Southeast.

“We’re trying to interest the major utility companies in participating with the roundup principle as a way to support their communities and connect with their customers,” says James A. Casteen, the nonprofit’s founder and president, and former product manager for mutual-fund communications for Cadmus Financial in Charlotte.

Duke Power is not considering the roundup program, says Randy Wheeless, a spokesman.

Because the company already solicits customer contributions and matches them dollars for dollar for its “share the warmth” program that provides heating assistance for low-income people, he says, soliciting additional funds for a roundup program might prove too much or too confusing for customers.

Throughout the United States, he says, at least 241 local electric membership corporations have launched roundup programs since 1989, generating a total of $41 million to $42 million for charity.

At those companies, on average, half the customers agree to round up their bills, with the aggregated funds at each company distributed to local charities based on decisions by customer committees.

With 123 million customers who pay bills each month to electric, gas, phone and water companies throughout the United States, he says, rounding up each bill 50 cents, on average, could generate $1.52 billion a year for charity.

The utility-customers nonprofit received $250,000 in November 2003 from the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has an office in Charlotte, to cover operations for one year, including a staff of three people.

The nonprofit, which has limited its staff to two, and soon will lose one staffer who will pursue a long-time interest in hiking, needs $300,000 to keep operating, Casteen says.

The group is seeking grants from foundations, he says, and asking them to help identify other supporters.

Casteen says he has met with officials of the six major investor-owned utilities in North Carolina, community foundations in Charlotte and Raleigh, and utilities and community foundations in other states in the Southeast.

In addition to managing the distribution of rounded-up funds collected by utility companies, he says, community foundations can play an important role advising utility companies on how to focus their charity based on local needs.

The role of the Utility Customers Charitable Trust, he says, will be to provide advice and consulting to help utilities and community foundations work together to create and operate roundup programs.

“We come in as a builder of collaboration,” he says, “and as a catalyst to pull the parties together to make the system work.”

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