Large, neon-green steel containers for used-clothing donations have popped up in recent weeks around Fort Wayne. In fact, the BBB reports 15 boxes have been placed near businesses and in parking lots.
Some boxes say the donations are for Green World Recycling, Green World Action and the Gaia Movement. The boxes' innocuous appearance is deceiving, says Mike Coil, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Indiana.
Research by the BBB has found the bins' owner operates under at least 20 other names and that only 28 percent of proceeds collected from sales of the donated clothing go for charitable program use.
The BBB issued an alert late Thursday, warning that the Gaia Movement's founder, Amdi Peterson, of Denmark-based Tvind - also called the Teacher's Group - and six of the organization's leaders have been indicted related to money-laundering, embezzlement and criminal tax evasion schemes in Denmark.
According to the Gaia Movement Indiana link, 40 clothes collection boxes have been placed in Fort Wayne and 117 in the Indianapolis area.
“We have found a very troubling link between Gaia and Tvind,” said Bill Warriner, president of Goodwill Industries of Northeast Indiana, which also collects donations of used clothing and household items and toys for resale in the nonprofit's stores. Warriner and Coil, who serves on Goodwill Industries' board, have been researching Tvind-connected organizations.
Some of the many other names Tvind operates under include: Humana People to People; U'SAgain, Garson and Shaw; Child Aid in Africa; Necessary Teacher Training College; Traveling Folk High School; Gaia Living Earth Movement; University of the Seven Seas; College Aid; and Planet Aid.
Planet Aid spokesman Doug Bailey said today, “We have nothing to do with Gaia. We don't have operations in Indiana.” However, Bailey said the Holliston, Mass., nonprofit was started 11 years ago in Denmark.
“Some of the same people who started Planet Aid may have once been part of Gaia, but we have no financial or operations connection to Gaia,” Bailey said.
Even if Planet Aid is not part of Gaia, the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago-based charity watchdog group, gave the organization an “F” in its December annual reports because IRS filing form showed only 31 percent money paid out goes toward charitable programs.
The institute sets 60 percent as the minimum.
The crux of the matter, Coil said is that consumers need to do their homework before giving money or in-kind donations to any nonprofit.
“What we want to tell consumers is that we have Goodwill in which 87 percent (of revenue) goes toward program expenses,” Coil said. He noted that The Salvation Army uses 84 percent of proceeds for direct charitable causes, and St. Vincent DePaul nationally uses more than 90 percent of proceeds for program services.
Coil said people can access charities IRS filing forms through the BBB's Web site. The form for Gaia shows it raised $20 million in 2006, with just 28 percent, or $5.4 million, used for charitable program services.
“Sixty-five percent is the BBB's standard,” Coil said.
Maj. Mark Welsh of The Salvation Army in Allen County said he is not familiar with Tvind and it is the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center and Donation Services branch at 427 W. Washington Blvd. that runs Salvation Army stores.
But he said, “I've heard of this practice before in Southern California and throughout the United States - where they say a percent goes to charity and then they funnel the money to for-profit ventures.”
But concerns by Welsh, Warriner and other charities that also run resale stores to support programs and services are justified.
In December, the Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune published a story about the drop in Salvation Army donations in Lackawanna County, Pa., after Planet Aid placed yellow donation boxes throughout the community.
Red boxes were also placed in Scranton by the Tvind-affiliated U'SAgain, which resulted in a 30 percent decrease in donations to The Salvation Army.
According to a Feb. 12, 2004, article in the Chicago Tribune, Tvind was begun in Denmark in 1970 by a group of teachers who ran a countercultural high school with charity/commercial ventures that have branches in 35 countries.
Investigations in Denmark as well as the United States uncovered details that allege Peterson and his top aides had “siphoned humanitarian funds into profit-making sawmills and swank Miami apartments,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
By 2002, Peterson was a fugitive from Denmark, and FBI agents arrested him between international flights at Los Angeles International Airport on a warrant issued by Interpol, the international police agency.
In subsequent U.S. court proceedings, Tvind claimed political persecution in his own country, pleading to not be extradited to Denmark, and he and his followers have continued to build businesses and “institutes,” that generate more than $800 million annually.
According to the Tribune, Tvind businesses in Chicago, Michigan and other states recruit volunteers to “labor in Tvind-run development projects overseas.”
Web photos showing handouts of clothing and other aid to the poor suggest Gaia, Humana People to People or Planet Aid are doing good, but Coil says good may be accomplished, but the question is to what extent for what is given?
“We would never disparage what person they (Gaia, Planet Aid, etc.) are giving money to, but 65 percent is the BBB standard,” Coil said, noting the BBB's role is not to evaluate an organization's mission or its leadership but to alert people when a charity is spending the vast majority of donors' money for administration and other non-program costs.
“We will be sending this alert out to all BBBs,” he said. “We just think consumers could do better in spending their dollars.”