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With Spring donations, watch out for Planet Aid scam

You’ve noticed them everywhere as they seemingly fill the landscape. They seem to pop-up over night and we’re not talking pot holes but those large, dirty yellow Planet Aid donations bins. Many retailers say they show up on their property without permission or notice. Others feel pressured to allow them space because they seem to be doing good. Are they? Or are you being scammed?

Where You Give Counts

According to local and regional thrift stores like the Salvation Army, Hillcrest Transitional Housing and Compassion in Action Center, donations and consumer traffic is at an all-time high. What does this mean to the donor looking for a place to give their goods? When we give to our local thrift stores, not only are we providing a service to the shop but we are giving within our own community,­ because local donations stay local.

Topeka’s Salvation Army Thrift Store Manager Sheena Davis says during the Obama recession they hit record sales for their store. Located at 2905 SW Topeka Blvd., the stores “hot items” are furniture and kids and women’s clothing.

“As soon as those types of items come in, their gone,” Davis says. “They literally fly out of the store.”

Davis adds the economy has been the big driver behind the rise in popularity for shopping at thrift stores. Another factor Davis says is providing what the consumer is looking for — quality, slightly used and discount priced items.

We take anything but are choosy about what we put out on the floor and I really believe this has added to the appeal of our store. We see an average of one-hundred customers daily and the feedback we get from our consumers guides us in what their looking for.”

local-planetaideWith all types of donations to local charitable organizations on the rise in a booming economy, could this possibly be a permanent change in the landscape of thrift store shopping? Cindy Hoffecher, assistant manager at Liberty Hillcrest Thrift Store in Liberty, Mo seems to think so.

Hoffecher explains. “It’s more than just bargain shopping. What I see going on here — and we see thousands of people a month come through our door — is a community that has developed between our customers. They talk to each other and get feedback on what’s needed out there in our community and the very next day those items are brought into the store. Friendships and extended family have developed from a need, and I believe that will continue long after the need is gone.”

Located at 7 West Mill St., Liberty Hillcrest Thrift Store is a ministry of Hillcrest Transitional Housing. The program’s primary focus is moving families from homelessness to self-sufficiency within 90 days. In exchange for rent and utility-free housing, residents are required by written agreement to work full time, obey the program guidelines, and attend volunteer taught classes in life skills, employment, community living and budgeting. In addition to housing and life-skills counseling, Hillcrest provides the following through a network of community support: auto repair or donation, food pantry, medical assistance, dental work, GED classes and much more.

Donations to the organization stay local and go towards ministry outreach and funding a small staff and operational expenses for the store.

“I hope people continue to give local,” Hoffecher says. “It’s clearly making a positive impact in the communities.”

Have you ‘bin’ had?

One of the common misconceptions about donations staying local is metal bins that have popped up everywhere in parking lots. Many corners these days have the yellow bins marked ‘Planet Aid’ or green bins marked ‘Gaia’. At first glance it may just look like another charity, but a closer look behind the boxes raises questions about who put them there and where those donations are going. For people who are eager to donate clothing, it’s handy. And for the organization behind the boxes; the convenience factor is paying off.

Area cities are finding that Planet Aid boxes are more of a nuisance than help. With the Federal government now investigating the “charity”, city councils are moving to restrict or even ban the donation bins as they clutter parking lots and alleys across the region.

Evelyn VanKemseke, president of board of directors for Community Center of Shawnee, Inc. says the Planet Aid organization approached her about putting bins in the parking lot at her community center located at 11110 W. 67th St. in Shawnee. VanKemseke says she saw a red flag when they couldn’t answer her questions.

VanKemseke says her research found that the clothing from the yellow bins is being taken to Texas and sold at the border or ground up and reused as insulation or pillow stuffing.

“They couldn’t show me any credentials or paper work about the organization,” she explains. “They couldn’t even explain to me where the donations from the bins were going. And the sad thing is, they have exploded all over the city of Shawnee because people who don’t care put their stuff in those boxes.”

VanKemseke says her research found that the clothing from the yellow bins is being taken to Texas and sold at the border or ground up and reused as insulation or pillow stuffing.

Shawnee Community Services whose mission is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and giving the assistance that prevents homelessness works with 23 agencies and an alliance of churches.

“Once you’re homeless, it costs a fortune to get you up on your feet,” she adds.

USA Today reported in December 2012 how the “most recent federal tax return from non-profit Planet Aid, which operates donation bins across the country, shows that just 28 percent of its $36.5 million in spending went to its international aid programs in 2011. The bulk of its spending went to collect and process clothes for recycling.”

The report cited how for-profit companies such as USAgain (which is linked repeatedly with Planet Aid) and non-profits such as Planet Aid make big bucks by bundling clothes and selling in bulk to recycling companies that ship overseas. ‘Where they are re-used as apparel, made into rags or reprocessed as furniture padding or insulation materials. On its tax returns, Planet Aid said its largest mission was the “protection of natural habitat by collecting and recycling 50,000 tons of used textiles’.”

Spokesman for the organization, Jonathan Franks touted the group’s recycling mission. “We view donation as an individual choice and believe that a variety of organizations with a variety of mission statements is a good thing,” he said.

According to the report by USA Today, the low percentage of money going to international aid programs earned Planet Aid an “F” from ratings organization CharityWatch, which examines how non-profits spend their money. “It’s more like Wal-Mart claiming to be a charity because they help people stretch their budget because they have lower prices,” CharityWatch founder Daniel Borochoff said.


How did these bin-based organizations start?

In 2011 the Chicago Tribune published an investigation on the hundreds of green donation boxes that had started appearing all over the area, that have now spread to the mid-west. According to the investigation it found, ‘they are connected to a Danish group called Tvind, and financial records showed that Gaia, the main Tvind-related organization in Chicago, was spending a very small percentage of its revenue on environmental projects’. The Tribune also stated that the Better Business Bureau said ‘Gaia failed to meet eight of its 20 charity accountability standards, noting that it classified money it spent on its clothing resale business as a charitable program expense rather than a fundraising expense’.

Massive amounts of profits are made from the sale of donated clothing from these boxes, but none of the money or donations stay local. VanKemseke says people assume the boxes belong to local organizations.

In a report from the Lawrence Journal-World in April 2006, the Kansas City branch of Massachusetts-based Planet Aid said that the Lawrence retailers that agreed to have the boxes on their property quickly filled. But Lawrence retailers had the same question as VanKemseke; how much donated clothing or money raised stays local?

In the report, a spokesperson for Planet Aid — Uli Stosch says the organization was legitimate and the money raised supported programs in Africa and the developing world. But these ‘charities’ are tied with TVIND whose founder includes Morgens Amdi Peterson who has been charged with fraud and money laundering in Denmark.

But for VanKemseke, she says the danger is there is so many people needing clothes and this type of program takes away from people in need.

“People can go to thrift stores, goodwill, organizations that can provide for them. They’re (the boxes) misleading. The boxes should state on them that donations given do not remain local or that they’re a for-profit organization.”

What’s at stake? Big money. Think of it this way; 3.1 million pounds of clothing translates into $3 million in revenue. Unlike the Salvation Army, Hillcrest Transitional Housing, Compassion in Action Center, or other organizations in that vein which take their revenue and help locals that are struggling with homelessness, joblessness or addiction, this Danish group that has grown into a worldwide organization, has moved $860 million in assets which include luxury homes, yachts and plantations (Fox 5 News — Washington, D.C. — February 2012).


Giving locally makes a difference

Compassion in Action Center CIAC is  one of the locally-based organizations that benefits from your donation when you by-pass the outdoor bins of Planet Aid.

“So many people have come to depend on CIAC as a place they can feel welcome and get what they need. Most of these people have to choose between buying food and having new clothes. CIAC makes it possible to have both.”

Located at 3206 N. Spring St in Independence, Carter says their community center also houses a recreational room and a place to hang out.

“People are in need,” he says. “And it’s those donations that are given from the local community that we depend on so much.”

Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores are also happy to take your building supplies or household goods. Habitat, known mainly for thier homebuilding efforts, has expanded their ReStores over the years and are in need of donations.

For more information about how to give to these organizations, visit:


Make your spring cleaning count and in the end bless those who need it the most.


By Elizabeth Rosenberger | Metro Voice

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