What's the story behind those yellow boxes?

The Post-Standard, Syracuse/December 8, 2007

By Renée K. Gadoua

Planet Aid, an organization that recently began collecting used clothing and shoes in yellow metal bins in Central New York, has received an F rating from a national charity watchdog group.

The Better Business Bureau is also reviewing the organization after receiving inquiries.

Planet Aid sells donated clothes and gives a portion of its profits to development projects in Africa, China, India and Central America, said Doug Bailey, a spokesman in Boston.

Since early November, Planet Aid has placed nearly 100 collection bins in Onondaga County, mostly in Syracuse, and has plans for about 55 more in the county. Five bins are in Fulton, and Planet Aid plans to expand in Oswego, Madison and Cayuga counties, Bailey said.

"We do exactly the same thing Goodwill does and Salvation Army does," he said.

But Planet Aid doesn't come close to matching the efficiency of the Salvation Army, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy. Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based AIP, said Planet Aid operates more like a business than a charity.

The AIP's F rating is based on the fact that only 31 percent of Planet Aid's revenue goes to charitable programs. The rest goes to administration and operating costs. According to 2006 Internal Revenue Service records, Planet Aid earned more than $18 million in 2006 and donated $5 million to charity.

Planet Aid spends about $73 to raise $100, Borochoff said. The AIP believes it is reasonable for a charity to spend $35 or less to raise $100.

The AIP gave the Salvation Army's Eastern Territory, which includes the Syracuse area, an A rating. According to the watchdog group, the Salvation Army spends 85 percent of its revenue on programs and spends $10 to raise $100.

The AIP does not rate the Rescue Mission, but Paul LaDolce said the agency spent $26 to raise $100 in cash donations in the fiscal year ending in September.

The AIP does not rate the overall operations of Goodwill Industries, which operates 161 autonomous organizations in the United States. On average, 83 percent of Goodwill's revenue goes to programs, said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, director of media relations. Several Goodwill stores operate in the Rochester area, but there are none in Central New York.

The Better Business Bureau's "wise giving standards" state that at least 65 percent of a charity's total expenses should be spent on programs and no more than 35 percent of related contributions should be spent on fundraising.

David Polino, president of the BBB's Upstate office, said it reviews a charity when someone inquires about it.

Planet Aid has been registered as a nonprofit group in Massachusetts since 1997.

"We provide handy places where people can drop off their clothes," Bailey said. "It's a very expensive business. We think we're not given credit for the amount of clothes that actually get recycled."

He said Planet Aid recycles 70 million tons of textiles a year in more than 8,500 bins. The group's 2006 tax document lists as an $11.3 million program expense "protection of the natural habitat" by recycling textiles.

"That's like saying Wal-Mart is a charity because it offers low prices," said Borochoff of AIP.

In the 13208 ZIP code, which is on Syracuse's North Side, there are 20 boxes.

The Franciscan Church of the Assumption on North Salina Street is one of two Roman Catholic churches with bins.

Brother Joseph Freitag, administrator, said Planet Aid offered the church 6 cents a pound for anything left in the box. The church received $25 for October, he said.

Freitag said he agreed to the project because the church cannot accept clothing. He also sees a value in offering people an option to donate to an organization that helps programs abroad. He's pleased so far with how the charity has maintained and emptied the bin.

"If I had a lot of problems with it, I probably would get rid of it," he said.

The Rescue Mission, founded in 1887, used similar metal collection boxes from 1961 until 1985. That ended when the boxes became targets of vandalism, LaDolce said. The Rescue Mission now staffs eight collection sites in Onondaga County.

"Someone greets you, takes your donation, gives you a tax receipt and thanks you," he said.

Maj. Kevin Schoch said the Salvation Army stands to lose many donations to Planet Aid.

"If they have that many boxes, we could be talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of clothing," he said.

He said money raised from Salvation Army's 10 thrift stores finances a 100-bed alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in Syracuse.

Bailey said charities criticize Planet Aid mainly because they fear competition.

"They don't like it very much when we come into a town," he said. "They've had the market to themselves."

He doesn't buy the argument that people prefer their donations to benefit local projects.

"It's Coke vs. Pepsi. People have a choice," he said.

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