Is it a charity to help the poor? Or a group cashing in on your good intentions?
Planet Aid says its placed more than 1,000 of its big, yellow bins in the Washington-Baltimore area, asking for your clothing donations. But FOX 5 has uncovered evidence linking the charity to a controversial group that many, including school teacher Jane Doherty, call a cult.
“I thought it was a travel study program for young people,” says Doherty. Ten years ago, Doherty says she signed up with the International Institute for Communication and Development to volunteer in Africa. Instead, she says she ended up on the streets of Boston, begging for money.
“We each had to raise in the neighborhood of $125 a day,” Doherty says. “We had to raise that amount to go where we were supposed to be going. That is what they told us, ‘you have to complete these goals.’”
Doherty says she and the other volunteers were cut off from their friends and family and rarely allowed to sleep. “I was becoming less and less lucid,” she says. “We were sort of as vulnerable as we could be so they could get what they needed from us.”
Doherty says she soon realized she had joined a Danish organization called Tvind.
“They are a cult,” Doherty says.
Cult expert Rick Ross agrees.
“The group behind Planet Aid, Tvind, has been on my radar for more than a decade,” he says.
Ross says Tvind is Planet Aid’s parent organization and has all the markings of a cult, including a totalitarian leader named Amdi Pedersen. Ross says Pedersen and Tvind cause harm by using techniques like sleep deprivation to get his followers to do his bidding.
“The organization has a double standard,” Ross says. “The leaders may live well, but the volunteers often suffer and live in substandard conditions.”
Journalist Mike Durham runs the watchdog group Tvind Alert in Britain.
“Amdi Pedersen can get people to do things no rational or sane person would do,” he says. “He can get them to give. He can get them to devote all of their time and energy to his cause. He can get them to withdraw money from a bank in Angola, stick it in their back pocket and smuggle it through customs because he tells them that is the right thing to do.”
The Danish government charged Pedersen with tax fraud and embezzlement in 2002. But Pedersen vanished during the trial. Danish authorities say if they ever get their hands on Pedersen again, he will be prosecuted.
Even though Danish authorities have linked Pedersen to Planet Aid in a court document filed in 2002, the charity denies any connection.
In a statement to FOX 5, Planet Aid says Pedersen does not have “any relationship with the organization” and calling it a cult “is a most ridiculous claim” that’s based on “unsupported rumors and allegations.”
Planet Aid does admit some of its board members are Tvind members, but claims out “of approximately 250 people working with Planet Aid, less than 5 percent” belong to the group.
On its website, Planet Aid says belonging to Tvind “is a lifestyle choice that may not be for everyone” and that “anyone is free to leave the group at any time.”
Jane Doherty says she did leave Tvind, just in time.
"I feel like personally I had lost myself entirely and I was about to sign over my whole life to them," she says.
She is now warning others to stay away from anything connected to Tvind, including Planet Aid.
“If you give money to them, you are giving money to a huge international organization that is manipulative and mistreating of young people,” said Doherty.