Planet Aid: A world of questions

Collection boxes spark concern here

Intelligencer Journal/July 27, 2007
By Larry Alexander

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania -- You're seeing more and more of them in Lancaster County: yellow collection bins soliciting used clothing and shoes, placed there by a group called Planet Aid.

In the past several weeks, the bins have appeared at a used car lot, a pizza shop, near a popular Franklin & Marshall College hoagie shop and near a carwash. One also stands outside a Chinese restaurant in Lititz, and still others have been placed at various locations around the county. Permission to place the boxes usually is granted by the property owners.

The wording on a box on Harrisburg Pike states clothing placed in the bin will be "sold to thrift stores and used clothing graders in the USA, Canada, South and Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia." Planet Aid claims "all proceeds from this box are used for community-development programs around the world."

Planet Aid also states it is a nonprofit organization, but some challenge that statement.

Debbie West, spokeswoman for Holliston, Mass.-based Planet Aid, said her organization supports a variety of projects, including food-growing programs and AIDS awareness and prevention classes in African countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Planet Aid raises funds by collecting used clothing, shoes, toys and laptop computers and selling them to brokers of secondhand goods. The money raised, after expenses, is used to fund its overseas charities. The organization has more than 8,000 collection bins in 17 states, West said.

"We are very proud of the work we are doing," she said Thursday.

Some others aren't as enthusiastic.

Capt. Glenn Chandler, head of the Salvation Army's clothing-distribution operation for central Pennsylvania, said Planet Aid is "ransacking America of millions of dollars."

Chandler's allegation stems from news stories, both foreign and domestic, linking Planet Aid to a large multinational organization that runs an estimated 150 nonprofit and for-profit businesses in 35 countries.

Known as The International Humana People to People Movement, the Tvind Empire, or just Tvind, after the area in Denmark where the group was founded in the 1970s by Mogens Amdi Pedersen, its leadership is known as the Teachers Group.

Recently, about half a dozen members of the Teachers Group, including Pedersen, were charged by the Danish government with fraud for diverting cash from their aid organizations to their for-profit organizations, according to media reports. All were acquitted, but a retrial is planned.

Since then, Planet Aid has been trying to distance itself from Pedersen and the Teachers Group.

"It's a very interesting organization, but it doesn't have any connection with Planet Aid whatsoever," West said.

West said some of the people running Planet Aid are members of the Teachers Group, but that "is part of their personal lives" and does not reflect on the work of the organization.

"I'm sorry, but it does," said Michael Durham, a London-based freelance journalist who has been tracking the organizations for 10 years.

Durham, who operates the Humana Alert Web site, said Thursday, "They've been saying this for years and pulling the wool over the eyes of the rest of the world. The fact is, the Teachers Group runs Planet Aid."

Defending the organization, West said there is "a lot of misinformation printed online about the company and what we do."

She points to the group's Food for Progress project in Mozambique, a joint three-year program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at increasing the cultivation and growing of soy as a food source and as a cash crop to generate income for schools and teacher education.

But how much of the money raised by Planet Aid through clothing donations, including those from Lancaster, gets to the poor?

In 2005, 23 percent of Planet Aid's $14 million income went to charities, according to American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors nonprofit groups. The AIP gave the organization a grade of "F."

West said Planet Aid is not registered with the AIP and that "it seems to be AIP's policy to give any charity that does not register with AIP an F."

West also defends the organization's charitable contributions.

"We have to sustain our operation," she said. "We have to provide a warehouse. We have to provide the collection bins. We have to pay operating costs on what we do. So 23 percent is a pretty good amount of money left over for us to donate."

Chandler, of the Salvation Army, was unmoved by the explanation.

"They are a bad organization," he said. "They are all about greed and money."

West said Planet Aid in the past did not do "a very good job" of defending itself from critics.

"People don't understand the organization and get confused and write things that aren't true," she said. "This has created a lot of confusion about who we are and what we do."

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