Western Massachusetts Town Gives a Break to Planet Aid

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April 19, 2013; Springfield Republican

In light of last week’s NPQ Newswire coverage of a controversy concerning used clothing bins in California, we take note of the decision of the selectmen of Ludlow, a small city in Western Massachusetts, to waive the $50 fee normally required of organizations that place used clothing bins in public places. Planet Aid asked that the fee be waived because of its nonprofit status.

Ludlow’s selectmen debated whether clothing bins became fire hazards or otherwise appeared unkempt. Some suggested that the $50 reflected a reasonable charge for the regulation of clothing bins. Planet Aid’s finances, if its most recent Form 990 is indicative, show that $50 wouldn’t be much of a hit. In 2010, it had $35.9 million in revenues; in 2011, $37.3 million.

Planet Aid is hardly a tiny operation. Its national headquarters claims 540 employees, though presumably local Planet Aid operations might have more staff and additional volunteers. The Springfield Republican noted that Planet Aid has 18,000 clothing bins nationally and 2,300 in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. By the reporting of the Republican, there was no debate among the selectmen concerning what Planet Aid does with the money it generates from donations of used clothing and shoes, nor any issues regarding its overall nonprofit accountability.  

There are more than nonprofits engaged in what NorthJersey.com columnist Holly Stewart describes as a big business in used clothing, with questions about who benefits from the donations and their impacts on various sectors of the economy. Whether it is used clothing behemoths like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army, lesser-known but still large international groups such as Planet Aid, or even for-profit groups, this is a sector that merits more public debate among nonprofits.—Rick Cohen 

  • Wade

    Give Planet Aid a break? Good heavens, that so-called nonprofit has played Ludlow’s selectmen like Stradivarius. If they only knew that Planet Aid has faced a storm of media criticism for a variety of disturbing reasons.

    1) For starters, the Chicago-based CharityWatch gave Planet Aid an “F” grade after analyzing its 2011 tax form and audited financial statements, determining that Planet Aid spent only 29% of its expenses on programs.

    But Planet Aid claims that 84% of the funds it generated in 2011 were spent on its programs. Why does the used clothes collector rate itself so highly when watchdogs don’t?

    According to CharityWatch: “Planet Aid considers the costs associated with collecting and processing donated clothing and other goods to be a ‘recycling’ program expense in support of its ‘significant contribution in the fight against climate change.’ It argues that if it did not collect these items, they would end up in a landfill.”

    CharityWatch counters that “it would be like Walmart claiming that its main purpose is to help low-income people have a higher standard of living by selling them less expensive merchandise.”

    CharityWatch adds: “There are many nonprofit organizations that compete with one another for clothing donations. If Planet Aid did not collect the used clothing … most of it would surely be collected by [other organizations]. So it is not the case that all of these items would likely end up in a landfill if Planet Aid did not collect them.”

    2) A charitable spending ratio of 29% is certainly too low, but the actual figure may be far lower than even that. In 2009, WTTG News in Washington DC examined Planet Aid’s then most recent tax records and noticed many of the overseas charities Planet Aid claims to support have the *same address*. A list of South African charities was shown in example. But the South African Embassy told WTTG that those groups are NOT registered charities.

    WTTG’s investigation found that ALL of the charities listed in Planet Aid’s most recent tax return are controlled by the same parent organization — a group called International Humana People to People Movement, which, according to its own web-site, *also* controls Planet Aid.

    (Note: Whether by its longer or shorter name, Humana People to People, this group is NOT affiliated with the American health insurer called Humana.)

    CharityWatch, Chicago, 2011: http://tinyurl.com/po4x85m
    WTTG News, Washington DC; 2009: http://tinyurl.com/nbgax5n

    (More in my 2nd comment)

  • Wade

    (My 2nd comment)

    3) More disturbingly, prosecutors in Denmark as well as independent investigations have linked Humana People to People and Planet Aid to an alleged cult called the Tvind Teachers Group (often shortened to “Tvind” or “TG”). Five TG leaders, including founder Mogens Amdi Petersen, are Interpol fugitives wanted in their native Denmark in connection with a multimillion-dollar tax-fraud and embezzlement scheme.

    Petersen: http://tinyurl.com/mgyvqt7
    Kirsten Larsen: http://tinyurl.com/lrmtvjf
    Marlene Gunst: http://tinyurl.com/k9p288s
    Christie Pipps: http://tinyurl.com/mwqltw2
    Sten Byrner: http://tinyurl.com/m2d3mgm

    If you see Petersen or the others listed above, please contact your local police. In October 2013, Petersen was reportedly spotted in Denver: http://tinyurl.com/lgx6dxc

    Planet Aid has publicly denied any connection to Tvind, of course, but admitted to WTTG that of its 250 employees, “less than 5 percent” belong to the group. I wonder, though, whether that 5% all happen to hold upper-level management positions at Planet Aid.

    None of Planet Aid’s officers are wanted by Interpol, but there are indications of Planet Aid’s ties to Tvind:

    a) In a 2002 article on Planet Aid, the Boston Globe quoted Poul Gode, a deputy prosecutor in Denmark’s Division of Serious Economic Crimes, who said of Humana People to People: “They are in operation all over Europe and they are very active in the US, especially on the East Coast. There is no doubt in my mind that Amdi [Petersen] is linked to Planet Aid in Massachusetts. … The charges against Amdi are not focused on what is happening with Planet Aid, but the people involved are the same.” (See reports in #4)

    b) An English translation of a 2001 case summary against Tvind leaders, by the Public Prosecutor for Serious Economic Crime, in Denmark. At the bottom of p. 4, Humana People to People is listed among Tvind’s “productive activities.” At p. 31, Planet Aid is mentioned in connection with Tvind: http://db.tt/AT0lUvxK

    c) Independent researchers say Planet Aid’s president, Ester Kamilla Neltrup, is a longtime TG member, as is its chairman Mikael Norling, treasurer Jytte Martinussen, director Eva Nielsen and secretary Per Torsten “Fred” Olsson. The watchdog website Tvind Alert included these five Planet Aid officials ― along with the five TG leaders sought by Interpol ― in a ‘Who’s Who’ of ‘significant [TG] members’: http://tinyurl.com/kfuqybt

    Planet Aid’s Board of Directors are shown on p. 18 of the company’s 2012 Annual Report: http://www.planetaid.org/about/annual-report

    (More in my 3rd comment)

  • Wade

    (My 3rd and last comment)

    Teachers Group leaders control their followers to an alarming degree, according to Tvind Alert News:

    “TG members are required to live according to the leaders’ dictates, which are based on the principles of ‘common time,’ ‘common economy’ and ‘common distribution.’ ‘Common time’ means that TG leaders determine what a member is to do with all of his or her time. ‘Common economy’ holds that one must hand over all of one’s money and assets to the group. ‘Common distribution’ involves being directed to hold a job somewhere in Tvind’s multinational empire of schools, factories, plantations, used clothes collection companies and much more.”

    4) Media stories and webpages that support my above opinions:

    Other reports on Planet Aid:

    KCBS News, Los Angeles; 2011: http://tinyurl.com/pk4smot
    Letter to the editor, Richmond Daily News, Mo.; 2012: http://tinyurl.com/mhndsf2
    Boston Globe, 2002: http://tinyurl.com/krzkxy2

    Planet Aid is listed as a member on Humana People to People’s website: http://www.humana.org/Members/usa

    Humana People to People’s charter is a crazed rant: http://www.humana.org/English/english-charter-1

    On Tvind:

    San Diego Reader; 2010: http://tinyurl.com/ke47wya
    BBC News, UK; 2002: http://tinyurl.com/lxty8qb
    Tvind Alert News: http://tvindalertnews.blogspot.com/
    Tvind’s luxurious HQ on Mexico’s Baja coast: http://tinyurl.com/kh3ho3c
    Satellite image of Tvind’s Baja headquarters: http://bit.ly/L5hyR9