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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Upper Valley charity battles nat'l non-profit

When Planet Aid, a national non-profit organization, placed clothing collection boxes in the Upper Valley and Vermont, it didn't expect controversy. But the nationwide non-profit's entrance into the local charity market has been met with antagonism by a local charity, which believes the collection boxes will divert needed resources away from the local area.

On Tuesday, Planet Aid's New England representative, Jay Allen, met with Merrilynn Bourne, the executive director of the Lebanon, N.H.,-based charity Listen Community Services, in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Reports of the meeting's events differ between the two parties.

Bourne said that she offered to give Planet Aid leftover clothing from her store if they removed their collection boxes, an offer which she says Planet Aid refused, noting that they only accept "credentialed rag" -- clothing that has not been sorted. Planet Aid then offered Listen clothing from its boxes, but Bourne similarly rejected this proposal, she said.

Allen, however, did not mention a proposal from Listen, instead noting that he offered Bourne "thousands of pounds of clothing."

"They refused the offer," Allen said. "The only option they gave us [Tuesday] was to leave the Valley."

Planet Aid will not leave the area, Allen said.

"I've offered them everything possible you can do," Allen said. "Nothing can make me happier than to help programs Listen Center is involved with."

Bourne said that she believes that Listen, as a charity from the local community, should be allowed to decide how the community's resources are allocated. The local charity should not have to rely upon items discarded by Planet Aid, Bourne said.

"I don't need clothing. I don't want you taking a community resource," Bourne said she told Allen at the meeting. "Since I represent the community the flow should be from me to you."

When people deposit clothing in the Planet Aid boxes, revenue leaves the community, Bourne said. According to the Planet Aid's Web site, the organization is committed to environmental protection and sustainable development in Africa and Asia. As such, donations collected by the organization are often sent overseas.

These boxes will also affect the quality and amount of clothing that Listen offers to residents of Vermont and New Hampshire, Bourne added.

"Some people have no option but to shop at Listen," Bourne said. "They can come here and use their dollars wisely. For those individuals, this is a real problem."

The meeting between Bourne and Allen was arranged in response to a Southeastern Vermont Community Action radio campaign. Although Planet Aid has had a presence in the local area for "quite a while," over the last four to six months the group has increased the number of boxes, according to according to Steve Geller, executive director of SEVCA.

This increase coincided with the timing of SEVCA's initiative to expand its textile-recycling program. Two weeks ago, SEVCA released a radio ad that sought to differentiate between SEVCA and Planet Aid, emphasizing that contributions to Planet Aid do not go to local residents.

"We have never said that in any respect Planet Aid didn't have a right to put in its facilities," Geller said. "We just want to make it clear that there are different circumstances. When people bring clothing to our stores, what happens to that clothing is different."

The radio ad was not intended to disparage Planet Aid, Geller said.

"It was not a bashing of foreign aid, or aid to other countries." Geller said. "We're just saying, 'let's also take care of our own,'"

This is not the first time that Planet Aid's efforts have resulted in controversy. A 2002 Boston Globe article reported that "almost none of the clothes donated to Planet Aid are given away, and only about 6 percent of the money the group raises is spent on charity, a Planet Aid official acknowledged a week ago." Philadelphia television station CBS 3 reported this year that "the secret ways [Planet Aid] is using the money, to fund unorthodox schools, have led some to call them a cult."

"The same allegations and guilt by association stories are continually recycled. No reporter has yet asked why this is really happening and what the real story is," reads a section of the Planet Aid Web site, titled "Our response to the media" and which claims that the media "have embarked on a crusade against Planet Aid and its members with all the fervor of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, except with not nearly the level of credibility."

"They claim Planet Aid tries to deceive consumers; that it doesn't give enough money to its charitable programs; and that it has affiliations with strange foreign organizations and people," the Web site reads.

These past criticisms of Planet Aid did not play a part in SEVCA's decision to run a radio ad campaign, Geller said, adding that SEVCA has not been contacted by Planet Aid, nor has it made any attempts to contact the organization.

The installation of Planet Aid's boxes is too recent for any "hard evidence" to exist that suggests that the collection boxes are harming Listen's revenues, Bourne said. However, she believes that the boxes have the potential to harm her store, which is why she has decided to take action now.

Allen, however, maintains that Listen's demands are unreasonable, arguing that Listen will fight against any national charity attempting to take action in the Upper Valley.

"They are very proud to say they ran Salvation Army and Goodwill out of town, and they will force out anyone else who comes out of town," Allen said.

Though Bourne believes that landfills and recycling centers would be "great spots" for Planet Aid's collection boxes, she feels that those boxes that are located close to Listen represent an effort by the national organization to tap into donations usually given to the local charity.

"They're trying to dip into a stream that we've built," she said.

This type of competition, Bourne argued, will have a negative impact on individuals who most need the charities' help.

"When McDonald's and Burger King compete, it only hurts their stockholders" Bourne said. "Competition between charities means human beings are hurt."

Michael Coburn contributed reporting for this article.