In November, Pennsylvania American Water announced their first ever "Community Investment Challenge," a contest for community and environmental groups to earn grants for small-scale projects within the company's service areas in 2014.

Voting opened on Nov. 8 and ended Dec. 8, with 17 contestants in four categories: Water and the environment, water and healthy living, environmental education and community sustainability.

The Downtown Scranton Spring Planter Beautification Project won the first place grant of $1000 with 737 votes, Derry Township Environmental Action Committee’s Rain Barrel Workshop won the second-place grant of $700 with 695 votes and Mt. Lebanon Environmental Sustainability Board’s Energy Camels Project won the third-place grant of $300 with 247 votes.

The first-place project involves cleaning up debris and planting flowers and bushes in Scranton’s Main Street district. The second-place project will allow workshop attendees to purchase a high-quality rain barrel at a reduced cost and learn about storm water runoff and water conservation, while the third-place project will reward residents who make documented progress in energy or water conservation by placing herds of Energy Camels in residents’ front yards for a few days.

Water Technology caught up with Josephine Posti, APR, External Affairs Specialist for Pennsylvania American Water, while the voting was ongoing, to talk about the contest and its effects on the community and the company.

Water Technology: What made Pennsylvania American Water decide to do this contest?

Josephine Posti: We look at our social media presence as something that is very critical in emergencies. We’ve seen over the years that when we have some sort of emergency, whether it’s a water main break or a large scale outage, a lot of times customers go to Facebook or Twitter to get regular updates from us. So what we try to do when it’s not an emergency is really try to build up the number of followers that we have on Twitter and Facebook, so that people know that we’re a resource and use us when it’s really important. What we’ve seen with some other brands, other utilities and other states that we do business in, is that contests are a really good way of creating engagement and getting people to start following you and using you as a resource.

WT: Could you tell me about the number and type of submissions you received for this contest?

JP: We got 17 submissions and it’s a really nice cross section of different environmental and community projects from different parts of the state. In terms of our service areas, we have projects that cover most of our service areas across Pennsylvania. They’re a combination of things that you would consider environmental — [such as] a couple of projects that are focused on rain barrels — and then there are some things that would be considered maybe more of a community project — like re-greening and creating planters in a downtown area. Some of them are pretty specific in terms of watershed activities like creek or river cleanups. But they all are in some way or another water-related.

WT: What types of individuals or organizations submitted these projects?

JP: We have some that are very specific environmental groups. That’s stuff like a group called the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited; that’s very environmental. Or Paddle without Pollution; they do cleanups along rivers and streams in this part of Pennsylvania. But then some of them are what I would describe as partnerships within different communities. There’s a group called the Mount Lebanon Environmental Sustainability Board, and that’s a partnership between the school district and the municipality there. They do different environmental projects that impact the entire community through the schools and through the community. And then some of them are things like conservation district organizations. There’s one group that’s called the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators. So those are some examples of the types of groups who are participating.

WT: Could you tell me about the number of people who have voted so far?

JP: We’ve had over 1,100 votes so far. And people can vote every day during the contest, so some of those votes may be one person who’s voted multiple times. We have seen since the contest started that we have increased the number of followers that we have on Facebook by about 700 people so far. So there were some people that were already following us on Facebook who have been voting in the contest, but then we have a number of new people who have found us as well.

WT: Besides increasing your followers, how has this contest improved your social media engagement?

JP: We do an environmental grant program every year where we select a handful of organizations who apply for different environmental grants, and those grants are usually pretty large. They could be as much as $5,000 or $10,000 for a specific project. And, we’ve thought over time, there are so many small scale projects in our different service  areas, there are so many organizations who are doing really important work that is in line with our mission, wouldn’t it be exciting to maybe offer them a smaller dollar amount because they don’t need as much money? [Just to] create some engagement, not just for us on  our Facebook page, but to help them on their organization’s Facebook pages, to build engagement and to generate some excitement among the people who follow them as organizations on Facebook. I’ve been purposely going to some of the organization’s Facebook pages during the contest, and they have seen their likes increase, and you can see they’re generating a lot of buzz about their projects within the communities that they serve. And people are emailing each other and encouraging their friends to go to Facebook. So it’s been a great thing for us, but our hope is that it’s also creating a lot of engagement among the organizations for their social media presences.

WT: Do you have any plans for similar contests in the future?

JP: I think we definitely will. We don’t have any firm plans yet. But we have seen this as a very successful venture so far and we would like to try to do something similar in 2014. So the organizations who don’t make it through the top three in this contest, I would encourage them to just watch this space and if we have a similar format for our next contest, to consider reentering other projects that they might have coming up in 2014.