When the Northridge earthquake shook Southern California in 1994, Howard Schiffer was running a natural products company. He received a request for a donation of vitamins from a local relief agency that was concerned about the health of children in the migrant worker community whose families had been displaced by the earthquake.
What started as Schiffer telling them he would make a few calls has evolved into a global cause that has galvanized the very spirit that began the natural products industry.
“After the initial response to the earthquake subsided, I reached out to the relief agency and they told me about the international need for supplementation, specifically vitamin A, and how simple and cost-effective the solution was,” recalled Schiffer, Vitamin Angels’ founder and president. “When I heard that two doses of vitamin A could save a child’s eyesight and increase their survival rates, it seemed like an obvious thing to do. Then when I learned that it was two doses a year— not two a day—and would cost about 25 cents per year, I was stunned.”
From there, Schiffer continued to educate himself about malnutrition, under nutrition and vitamin supplementation, and Vitamin Angels was born. The idea married Schiffer’s background in childbirth education and midwifery, and his corporate background in developing and selling natural products. “It was the perfect way to do something meaningful with my life,” he said.
Today, Vitamin Angels helps at-risk populations in need—specifically children under 5, pregnant women and new mothers—gain access to lifesaving and life-changing micronutrients. It focuses on reducing childhood morbidity and mortality through vitamin interventions, specifically vitamin A. It also reaches children, women and moms with daily multivitamins to support proper mental and physical development.
“By addressing nutritional gaps we can improve children’s health, which can lead to greater educational achievement and economic productivity, ultimately helping them break the cycle of poverty,” said Schiffer. “When you give children nutrients, you are also giving them the chance for a brighter future.”
Vitamin Angels created its flagship program, Operation 20/20, in 2005. Operation 20/20 focuses on reaching children under 5 years of age who are most vulnerable to the effects of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a condition afflicting an estimated 190 million children worldwide.
“For children under 5, a simple, cost effective dose of vitamin A every six months can reduce child mortality rates by 24 percent, and the risk of early signs of blindness caused by VAD by 68 percent,” said Schiffer. “We remain committed to extending our reach and ensuring every child has a chance to lead a healthy and productive life.”
And being out in the field makes this a very real-life mission for Schiffer and the Vitamin Angels’ team. He recalled meeting a 3-year-old boy named Avinash at a vitamin A distribution in India last year.
“Avinash was in poor health and already exhibiting signs of declining vision due to advanced VAD,” he said. “Left untreated, Avinash could have gone blind. With a weakened immune system, he was more vulnerable to common childhood illnesses like measles or diarrhea; even an infection could be life threatening.”
Fortunately, Vitamin Angels was able to reach Avinash with a critical intervention of vitamin A. “Avinash was part of the 62.1 percent of children under the age of 5 who suffer from VAD in India (the highest rate in the world). Now, he is one of the approximately 1.7 million children in India who are no longer at risk of VAD because they are receiving vitamin A through our Operation 20/20 program,” said Schiffer, noting that in 2012, through Operation 20/20, Vitamin Angels reached approximately 26. 5 million children under 5 with high dose vitamin A in 42 countries.
Vitamin Angels launched another ambitious campaign at the close of 2012: Precious Cargo. Running from December 1-31, the group called on sponsors to help spread the word that Vitamin Angels sought to raise $200,000 to support its efforts of reaching the most remote villages.
The group provided sponsors, who pledged to match all donations Vitamin Angels received in the month of December (up to $100,000), with a range of marketing collateral for the campaign that sponsors could promote through social media, websites, etc. Knowing that a donation would be matched proved to be an incredible motivator, and Precious Cargo managed to raise more than $221,000 in just 31 days.
Vitamin Angels is additionally reaching an approximate 400,000 children under 5 and pregnant women or new mothers with daily multivitamins through its Thrive to Five program in 32 countries.
Further, Vitamin Angels is working on a multi-micronutrient powder (MNP) pilot program through one of its field partners in Haiti. “Similar to our Thrive to Five program, we are distributing multivitamins to children under 5, but here we are using a powder rather than a chewable vitamin,” said Schiffer, noting that this campaign is in the early stages of development, but the group is eager to launch it on a global scale. Until then, “as with our other programs, we welcome the opportunity to partner with companies to support this program through funding or donations of raw materials.”
Making it Happen
Vitamin Angels began with a small all volunteer team and has grown to a full time staff of almost 20. According to Schiffer, each staffer is so committed to the cause and works tirelessly to achieve Vitamin Angels’ mission.
“Every one brings something special Circle Reader Service #28 to the table, and the camaraderie between the team is like nothing I’ve experienced before,” he said. “Most of our team (aside from new hires) has also been out into the field with us, so they’ve experienced our work firsthand.”
Vitamin Angels is able to carry out its mission by working with more than 200 faith-based groups, governmental organizations, food banks and regional clinics, along with several of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world. There is also a network of agencies and teams who provide a variety of invaluable technical, legal and creative resources.
Schiffer also credits Vitamin Angels’ ability to achieve its goals to its consultant network on the ground in India and Africa, “without whom we would never be able to form the relationships with our field partners. So many of our partners who work at the village level are our real heroes—they are so committed to helping these children—living in the most remote locations and working in very adverse conditions,” he said.
“This network of heavily vetted distribution partners allows us to identify those most in need who are currently not being supported through more traditional channels. Our projects are designed to be sustainable, providing access to local communities and reaching the same children year after year,” Schiffer added.
Vitamin Angels’ success hinges on its field partners. These local organizations and international humanitarian aid groups are responsible for coordinating the distribution of its vitamins to those children and mothers who need them most.
“We hear time and again how hard it can be to reach some of these children— in Cameroon, one of our partners walks 24 hours to hand deliver vitamins to villages that aren’t accessible by road; in Nepal, vitamins are trekked into the mountains in packs and by mule; and our partners in India sometimes go door-to-door to make sure every child is reached,” said Schiffer. “Without our distribution network, many of these children would go unreached.”
In addition to the dedicated Vitamin Angels staff and network of field partners, the organization has more than 150 corporate partners within the industry who support its work through financial contributions as well as product donations.
“Vitamin Angels would not exist without support from our corporate partners. In fact, about 95 percent of our funding comes from corporate partnerships. We literally take no money from the government,” said Schiffer. “Companies across the natural products industry—and beyond—continue to come up with new and innovative ways to raise funds for us.”
Vitamin Angels’ most popular partnership model is donating 25 cents per item sold (enough to reach one child with vitamin A for a full year). “Customers understand the impact of their purchase and studies have shown that 80 percent of Americans would switch from one brand to another comparable brand, if the other brand is associated with a good cause,” said Schiffer. “Vitamin Angels is this cause.”
Cause-marketing is another “winwin” model for Vitamin Angels’ partners, who are increasing sales, building customer loyalty and boosting employee morale while supporting a cause that reinforces the value of supplementation in good health.
Other sponsorship efforts include:
• Co-branding products
• Committing to one-for-one donations
• Pledging a percentage of their sales
• Holding retail promotions
• Hosting or supporting events on Vitamin Angels’ behalf
• Donating raw materials or production services (bottlers, tableters, labelers, etc.) for the vitamins themselves
Vitamin Angels is eager to partner with companies interested in supporting its cause and will work with them to create a mutually rewarding arrangement.
Texas-based Bluebonnet Nutrition first heard about Vitamin Angels in 2008, and was intrigued by the fact that Vitamin Angels focused on those who are underserved, according to President and Founder Gary Barrows. In turn, the company donated approximately $50,000 (retail value) of select Bluebonnet multiple formulas that contained ample amounts of vitamin A, iron as well as folic acid in 2010.
“Vitamin Angels’ innate ability to be a megaphone voice for those around the globe in need of proper nutrition has energized and empowered those in our industry like Bluebonnet to get involved and feel like they are making a real difference. It provides suppliers, manufacturers and retailers easy and effective ways to help those in need by creating these turnkey programs that directly reach under served populations around the world who would seem impossible to reach otherwise,” said Barrows. “With every passing year, Vitamin Angels has been able to increase the awareness of those in need within our industry. By doing so, they have been able to receive more support, which in turn allows them to give more and touch many more lives through their programs.”
And retailers are a huge—and growing— avenue of support for Vitamin Angels, according to Schiffer.
“One of the most impactful ways retailers can partner with Vitamin Angels is to organize a promotional event that engages vendors and consumers,” he said. “Some of our partners, like the Vitamin Shoppe and Whole Foods, are offering preferred placement to vendors who make a commitment to Vitamin Angels based on sales. Others are spreading the word through co-branded marketing materials like shelf-talkers, signage or promotional items. Still more partners, like Vitamin World, are engaging their customers by asking for in-store and online donations, and seeing huge results.”
California-based NeoCell first became involved with Vitamin Angels in 2011 when it ran a three-month promotion donating portions of product shipped—enough to help 120,000 children receive life-saving doses of vitamin A—and was excited to be one of the companies invited to participate in these retail campaigns. “These retailers called out Vitamin Angels with store signage, end caps featuring the donating manufacturers, call out shelf tags and mail out information,” said Jessica Mulligan, NeoCell’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We were drawn to Vitamin Angels because of the incredible work they do for infants and young children, and also because they were able to structure their charity so manufacturers and retailers are able to benefit from involvement. By Vitamin Angels creating a win-win for everyone involved, the children end up being the real winners.”
An Angelic Future
While Vitamin Angels has never “failed” in achieving its goals per se, Schiffer recognizes how much more there is to be done.
“Globally, more than one third of the deaths of children under age 5 are attributable to under nutrition and 190 million children are still vitamin A deficient,” he said. “We can’t accept this and we continue to work on sustainable initiatives to increase our success and give all children worldwide the chance they deserve from the day they are born.”
And Schiffer is quick to note that this enormous undertaking is not possible without the support of the industry and Vitamin Angels’ extraordinary network, especially those in the villages.
“As much as our partners mean to our work, we continue to hear how much our support means to them. They are the ones to see the impact of our vitamins firsthand,” he said, describing the healthy babies born to healthy mothers thanks to prenatal vitamins, and how much healthier and more vibrant the children receiving vitamin A are. “These are the measures of our success.”
An Impactful Timeline
1994 Vitamin Angels distributes 100,000 vitamins in its first year. “Many of the companies that donated vitamins that first year, like NOW
1995 Foods and Rainbow Light, remain committed Vitamin Angels work today,” said Schiffer.
1998 Vitamin Angels registers 501c3 nonprofit organization under the name Vitamin Angel Alliance, Inc. Its first tagline: “Providing basic nutrition to people in need.”
2001 The first Vitamin Angels newsletter goes out to its followers. (In 12 years the group only missed sending out one monthly newsletter!)
2003 Vitamin Angels’ first program launches in India reaching approximately 100,000 children (today it reaches more than 1.7 million children a year in India alone).
2005 Operation 20/20, Vitamin Angel’s international vitamin A program, is born. Its goal is to eradicate childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency (VAD) by the year 2020. “Since then, our program mission has evolved,” said Schiffer. “We know that in addition to preventing childhood blindness caused by VAD, vitamin A supplementation reduces child mortality in at-risk children by an average of 24 percent.”
2008 Vitamin Angels reaches 2.5 million children worldwide.
In addition, The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of the world’s leading economists, names vitamin supplementation (specifically vitamin A and zinc) as the No. 1 solution to the world’s greatest problems.
2009 Vitamin Angels reaches eight million children worldwide.
2010 Vitamin Angels reaches 22.5 million children worldwide.
2011 Vitamin Angels reaches approximately 25 million children worldwide.
2012 Vitamin Angels reaches approximately 27 million children worldwide. The Copenhagen Consensus ranks “Bundled micronutrient interventions to fight hunger and improve education” as the No. 1 intervention.
2013 Vitamin Angels’ goal is to reach 30 million children this year!
On The Ground With Vitamin Angels
Rainbow Light President Linda Kahler knew Howard Schiffer from his years in the natural supplement industry. When he approached the California-based company for supplement donations, Kahler quickly created a program linking Rainbow Light’s donations with its prenatal multivitamins with a structured commitment for a continuous supply of product that Vitamin Angels could count on as a foundation.
“As we’ve held that No. 1-selling prenatal position for 20 years, we are proud to share that longevity and success with our partners at Vitamin Angels, and moms and babies in need around the world,” said Kahler.
Rainbow Light representatives have joined Vitamin Angels observational trips twice in recent years. In 2009, Sharon Dressen, senior manager of education and outreach, traveled with Vitamin Angels to Haiti to see firsthand the difference that supplements are making in women and children’s lives. And last year, Terri Anne Cooper, education manager, joined Vitamin Angels in Peru to observe distributions and interact with the local women and children receiving supplements.
“In both cases, the positive results of the Vitamin Angels program were clear: a reported reduction in stunted growth, anemia, vitamin A deficiency and chronic malnutrition, resulting in reduced clinic visits and hospitalization, increased school attendance and decreased morbidity and mortality rates,” said Kahler, noting that, to date, Rainbow Light has donated 29 million supplements worldwide through Vitamin Angels, with a recent focus on the Philippines, Haiti and children in the U. S.
Meanwhile, vitamin A supplementation and nutrient deficiency has long been a concern of New Jersey based DSM Nutritional Products USA. For 25 years, its humanitarian initiative, Sight & Life, has worked with global and local partners and leading universities to sustainably improve human nutrition and health by encouraging partnerships, the generation and exchange of scientific information, and network building. This was one of the first areas where DSM teamed up with Vitamin Angels.
“With its infrastructure on the ground, Vitamin Angels goes where local governments don’t and they do it in an incredible way,” said Jim Hamilton, DSM president and a member of the Vitamin Angels Board for the past two years.
And Hamilton can attest to that personally after joining Schiffer on a trip through India in 2012.
“It is one of the best things I have ever done. It really affects you—seeing the power of our products and how they can change lives,” he said, recalling an encounter near Calcutta. “Dr. Shilpa Bhatte pointed out this little girl—her hair was almost blond and brittle, and she had white dots on her eyes. She was on the cusp of going blind.” Thankfully, she was one of the girls to receive a vitamin A supplements that day.
“If anyone ever doubts the power of nutrition, you need to see what I saw on this trip. Just one capsule of vitamin A is the difference whether a child will go blind. It’s amazing,” he added. “The work of Vitamin Angels is the cause of our industry.”
Participation is a Privilege
In 2007, when Florida-based Garden of Life launched its line of RAW Whole Food Multivitamins, called the Vitamin Code, the company knew it wanted to do something that was, at the time, new in the industry.
“We wanted to donate a portion of every vitamin supplement purchased to help Vitamin Angels provide a necessary vitamin supplement to a child at risk,” said Jeffrey Brams, general counsel and vice president of science and international. “We were attracted to Vitamin Angels’ unique mission to make essential micronutrients widely available to at-risk populations in need. Their Operation 20/20 campaign was the perfect fit for us.”
The company uses its Extraordinary Health magazine, product packaging, sales and marketing organization, and any other available tools to promote the Vitamin Angels’ mission. “And we do this from the heart,” said Brams, who has since served on the Vitamin Angels Board as Garden of Life’s ambassador. “We are privileged to be working alongside Vitamin Angels and doing our part to reach these kids.
“Our office shares Howard and the Vitamin Angels team’s sense of mission. You should see the number of employees wearing lapel pins and wristbands, or how our walls are decorated with images. It makes us all want to reach that much higher—do that much better—every day,” he added. “Ultimately, at-risk kids win. Who wouldn’t be inspired?”
Three years ago, the Life…supplemented consumer education campaign from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) incorporated a charitable donation to Vitamin Angels as part of its program. Around the same time, CRN began inviting Howard Schiffer to speak to participants at its annual conference to further familiarize the industry with Vitamin Angels.
CRN’s current promotion with Vitamin Angels was a simple idea: to make a donation for each downloaded “Life…supplemented” mobile app, which is free. So far, Life…supplemented has donated $45,000 to Vitamin Angels.
“Life…supplemented is an industry-wide program and, as such, we felt that it was important for this program to give back on behalf of the supplement industry. It works well because it gives visibility both to Vitamin Angels and to the educational information that Life…supplemented tries to disseminate to consumers,” said Judy Blatman, CRN’s senior vice president of communications.
“When you have organizations like Vitamin Angels that work tirelessly to give back to communities worldwide, it says something about who we are as an industry,” she added. “That’s one of the reasons why Life…supplemented and CRN support this organization— they do good work for children and others in need, and it’s an important reflection on our industry.”