Charity or Danish cult: Investigating the murky business of Planet Aid

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Charity or Danish cult: Investigating the murky business of Planet Aid

Ethan Leifman

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Pop quiz: What’s big, yellow, right in front of a good chunk of DCPS schools, and could be linked to a Danish cult? The Planet Aid donation bins are the answer.

Planet Aid claims they are a charity organization, and at first glance, that seems to be the truth. Their bright yellow clothing donation bins are a common feature of the immediate surroundings of many DCPS schools. Their website lauds their efforts to help the poor, donating coats to hurricane victims and promoting sustainable development around the world, from Kansas to Angola.

However, the organization isn’t all that they seem to be. According to revealnews.com, run by The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), “Planet Aid is one of at least seven U.S.-based nonprofit organizations, and two or more U.S. for-profit companies, that have been linked to a secretive Danish organization known as the Tvind, or the Teachers Group. Each benefit directly or indirectly from the used-clothing donation boxes that have become ubiquitous in American cities and towns.” This umbrella scheme leaves the individual smaller organizations at a lower chance of being investigated, as they each don’t seem to have an enormous share of the charity market.

Planet Aid has also come under fire for their workplace environment. A joint investigation conducted by NBC Washington and the CIR revealed “cult-like” conditions throughout the company, in which employees of Planet Aid were sent to training in Michigan that the employees paid for themselves, and then were sent out into the street to raise money for their charity trips to Africa. The employees were told that the money would go back to the company, not directly to their trips to Africa. The employees who did go to African countries, often after raising upwards of $50,000 for their trip, were told that they had to ask their family and friends for teaching resources, even though these are frequently dropped in the yellow boxes.

Though the organization may seem cash-strapped, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) records reveal that they make up to $42 million every year, largely from selling the clothes they obtain from their donation boxes.

Despite these stories, some employees appreciate the company. Phil Simms, who operates a collection truck for Planet Aid, is a fan of the company culture. “I’ve worked at for Planet Aid for seven years. I’ve gone to a few company events, like a marathon over the Bay Bridge,” Simms said.

Planet Aid’s corporate headquarters in nearby Elkridge, Maryland, could not be reached for comment.

Planet Aid and associated Teachers Group organizations followed this model of strange behavior and selling donated clothes in many areas of Europe until they were banned by countries such as Denmark, Britain, and France after being classified as a secular cult, meaning they exhibited strange and often extortionist behavior but were not linked with any religious or spiritual beliefs.

Mogens Amdi Petersen, who founded the Teachers Group in 1970, currently seems to be hiding from the International Criminal Police Organization in a 494-acre compound in Baja California, Mexico. The Mexican government has not extradited Petersen, who reportedly owned numerous offshore bank accounts, back to Denmark or the International Criminal Court for tax evasion. Wilson students seem blissfully unaware of the dark side of the yellow bins. Based on a survey of 250 random Wilson students, 88 percent did not know the organization by name alone. Only 12 percent had ever heard of the organization. “Planet what? Planet Eight?” was a popular response the survey elicited. No student knew of any potentially nefarious behavior by the organization.

All this begs the question: why are these donation boxes in front of so many DCPS schools? Principal Kimberly Martin said the land was not owned by Wilson. It is unclear who exactly controls the land. I asked the Department of Parks and Recreation, who led me to the Department of General Services, who led me to the Department of Public Works, who led me back to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Regardless of what organization maintains the land, it is ultimately the DC government that allows Planet Aid to operate in the city.

Though Planet Aid may be doing some good in the world, there are a lot of other ways to donate clothes in DC that don’t potentially involve a Danish cult run by an international criminal. Local organizations like The Clothing Recycling Company and ThriveDC are better alternatives for those who want their donations going to the betterment of DC, and not a charity that nets $42 million a year.