FEATURED SPRING 2016 ISSUE
Empowering individuals, communities and cultures across the globe.
From an early age, while working on his family’s farm, Jeff Broin was taught the importance of what he calls “the three God-given gifts that can change the world – the sun, the seed and the soil.”
“I always felt those three gifts could lift people out of poverty,” says Broin, the founder and CEO of POET. “And I always felt that if I ever became successful I would work to give back to others around the world somehow using the sun, the seed and the soil.”
Even in those early days of POET, even when the hours were long and the profits were small, Jeff and his wife Tammie made sure the company didn’t lose sight of giving back. They supported local Little League teams, Future Farmers of America, the area 4-H and the YMCA.
As POET grew, so did its giving. By 2010, the company was supporting more than 100 organizations through the POET Foundation, a charitable giving arm that now reaches out to Make-A-Wish, LifeLight (the annual free Christian music festival held in South Dakota), Children’s Home Society and many other local, regional and national causes.
And last year, POET created Seeds of Change, a 501(c)(3) organization designed to oversee and facilitate donations to the company’s ever-growing involvement in international causes.
“Seeds of Change also creates the opportunity for others to join POET in giving around the world,” says Broin.
“My parents always stressed the need to give back to the community,” says 20-year old Miranda Broin, who co-founded Seeds of Change with her parents, Jeff and Tammie. “Growing up, we helped with Make-A-Wish and the Children’s Home Society. Every Christmas we’d help Sioux Falls Cares, which delivers packages to families in need. But it’s amazing to see how far it’s grown, and Seeds of Change is just the beginning of even bigger and better things.”
POET has always been a big-picture company, a company whose business focus stresses how involvement at the local level – how dozens of farmers selling corn to an ethanol plant in, say, Scotland, SD, or hundreds of farmers owning stock in a plant in Glenville, MN – can affect not only local communities, but also how it can change the world.
So it seemed like a natural progression when Jeff Broin took the POET Foundation global in early 2010 with the announcement of a five-year, $420,000 grant to Global Health Ministries to help bring water wells and health outreach to Nigerian villages that would save thousands of lives.
While this was POET’s first real foray into developing world issues, it would not be the last. Right from the start, Jeff Broin recognized POET’s agricultural expertise meant the company could help not just in monetary ways, but through its contacts and core competence as well.
He saw that firsthand in 2012 while on a mission trip to Kenya, where he and his family helped rebuild a rural school for deaf children. During his trip, Broin couldn’t stop studying the Kenyan corn, which was short, brown and stricken by drought – a devastating, famine-causing disaster for a country in which nearly 75 percent of its people rely on farming for their livelihood.
“This experience opened up my eyes to an even bigger picture,” Broin says. “We saw the depth of human need for food, for clean water, for education. We saw starving people with almost no resources. We knew right then that POET could do more to improve agriculture in areas that had no way to improve their standard of living.”
GROWING THE VISION
That revelation, though, did not mean POET would be shifting resources to international outreach at the expense of domestic giving. It did, in fact, mean the opposite.
“Those problems helped us realize that we needed to do even more as a company, both in giving at home and internationally,” says Broin.
Soon after Broin returned from that Kenya trip, POET not only stepped up its domestic involvement, but also unveiled a series of internationally-focused projects, including Mission Greenhouse (an annual mission trip by POET team members and their families to assist an all-girls boarding school in Sultan Hamud, Kenya), Mission Greenfield (a partnership with Farm Input Promotions (FIPS) Africa to increase food security and crop yields sustainably in Africa) and Mission Breathe (a partnership with Project Gaia to provide ethanol fuel and clean cookstoves in Haiti).
With a vision statement that centers on “cultivating hope across nations by transforming education, agriculture and environmental conditions to support worldwide, sustainable development,” Seeds of Change now serves as the umbrella organization for those programs and more.
“Seeds of Change is important because it goes to the heart of – and demonstrates the heart of – POET,” says Alicia ElMamouni, an Associate Biomass Research Scientist at POET Biomass who has been heavily involved with Seeds of Change and Mission Greenfield.
“We’re not just a big corporation trying to make money,” says ElMamouni, who says her Peace Corps background has helped her recognize the big-picture benefits in biofuels. “We’re trying to do the right thing as a company, and that makes all of us here better.”
When POET announced a recent “Coin Wars” fundraiser – a department versus department challenge to collect the most change for Mission Greenhouse – they hoped to raise $1,000. What started out as team members donating desk change soon turned “really competitive, in the best way,” says ElMamouni. “Everyone really came together for a cause, all of us working together with that sense of community.”
Team members pulled pennies, dimes and quarters from the bottoms of desk drawer, cup holders in their cars and loose change around their homes. In two weeks, they raised over $6,600 to help educate girls at the school in Kenya, 8,000-plus miles away from South Dakota.
That kind of corporate camaraderie, driven by giving, comes as no surprise to John Paluszek, who literally wrote the books on corporate social responsibility – “Organizing for Corporate Social Responsibility” and “Will the Corporation Survive?”
“Corporate social responsibility is important on so many levels,” says Paluszek, who is a Senior Counsel at Ketchum (a global communications company specializing in corporate responsibility) and Executive Producer at Business in Society. “It builds credibility with the audiences that are important to you, and one of those audiences is your employees.”
“There are champions in this field,” says Paluszek, “and it appears to me that Mr. Broin has taken his place somewhere in that list of champions. The one thing about the POET activity and the Seeds of Change Foundation that impresses me is that it’s not some sort of arm’s length activity. It deals with the core competence of the company.”
And that core competence is helping drive the long-term success of these efforts, according to the people who experience it every day.
SEEING THE IMPACT
“We are seeing big benefits from the POET-supported program in Africa,” says David Priest, Assistant Director of FIPS – Africa. “POET is helping FIPS help at least 72,000 farmers to experiment with new farming methods. These include seeds of new varieties that are higher yielding and tolerant to drought or better ways of preparing the land.”
The results speak for themselves. Some farmers see grain yields increase by as much as four times in one to two years.
“You can see, every day, the impact we’re having on people’s lives,” says Paul Seward, Managing Director at FIPS, who serves as the in-Kenya contact for Mission Greenfield. “We’ve helped some of the children go from eating one or two meals a day to three meals a day. These changes are things that will mean success and sustainability for these families in the long run.” For example, new farm income families receive as a result of these higher yields can now pay for school fees that were previously unaffordable, giving a generation the gift of education.
As the Executive Director of Project Gaia, a non-profit organization which promotes clean cookstoves in developing countries, Harry Stokes has witnessed the devastating effects of people cooking indoors with chunks of charcoal in places like Haiti and Kenya. The World Health Organization estimates that 4 million people a year die prematurely because of indoor air quality, mostly connected to indoor cooking with solid fuels.
“POET has given us courage to persevere in our mission, which is to introduce alcohol fuels, particularly ethanol, to the developing world,” says Stokes. “We do this by focusing on cooking, which generally constitutes 80 to 90 percent (sometimes even more) of energy demand in least developed countries.”
As part of its Mission Breathe initiative, POET jumpstarted Project Gaia’s efforts in Haiti by donating 12,000 gallons of ethanol in late 2014. It’s only a start in a worldwide, charcoal-based cooking market that could someday consume approximately 34 billion gallons of ethanol.
“It comes down to social responsibility,” says Shon Van Hulzen, Director of Quality Control for POET. Van Hulzen is also heavily involved with Mission Breathe and traveled to Haiti in May 2014. “We have a company that’s been successful in the energy sector. This is a way we can give back. My time in Haiti was incredibly eye opening, something you wish everyone could experience. It’s incredible to see how much of a positive change we can make there, and it’s all about introducing them to something we’re passionate about – ethanol and agriculture – and seeing how it can change their lives forever.”
Miranda Broin saw how it not only changed the people she was hoping to help, but herself as well. She described one of her Kenya trips as “Ten days. 170 new friends. One big family, no longer strangers. Thousands of memories.”
It’s a message POET wants to impart to everyone, that message about how involvement at the local level can change the world.
“We created Seeds of Change to make it easier for others to join POET and support these great causes,” says Miranda Broin. “Like my dad says, I know that we can use the sun, the soil and the seed that God has given us and we can help lift people out of poverty permanently because we have witnessed it firsthand, and it starts right here.”
It starts with those POET team members, proving that enough people pulling change from desk drawers can change the lives of young girls in Kenya.
“It extends out to those farmers and other stakeholders that are starting to consider Seeds of Change in their contributions and their estate plans,” says Broin. “These supporters understand the critical importance of agriculture, good education and a clean environment for everyone, even people half way around the world. Agriculture has given America and all of us so much, and I believe it’s time to consider how we can all give back some of our God-given gifts not only here locally, but around the world.”
And, with programs that focus on sustainability and long-term improvements in people’s livelihoods, it’s an impact that can go on forever.
“There is a great book that all Americans should read called The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn,” says Broin. “I am a true believer that when you give, you receive in multiples. I believe POET is a real life example of this principle.”
“Agriculture has always been near and dear to my heart, and it’s a tremendous opportunity for developing countries,” says Jeff Broin. “So to see people halfway around the world with corn plants towering over their heads when all I saw before were three-foot tall stalks with no ears…to see people cooking with clean ethanol in Haiti…to see how we can change hundreds of thousands of lives and make the world a better, more sustainable place thanks to our efforts, that’s a pretty cool thing for a kid that grew up on a farm in Minnesota.”