Howard Schiffer would rather be covered in mud and swatting malaria-carrying mosquitoes off his neck in an obscure village in Guatemala than wearing a tux and speaking to billionaires at a five-star resort somewhere in the United States. But when he is invited to speak, he thinks about all the children he knows living in squalid conditions in 40 Third World countries around the globe, takes a deep breath and dons the penguin suit.
He does it to tell people about Vitamin Angels, the nonprofit group he started 15 years ago that distributes vitamins to impoverished nations — vitamins that change lives, and save them, on a daily basis.
“What would you do if tomorrow you opened the newspaper and a headline said 100 747s had crashed, all children on board, no survivors?” Schiffer asks. “What if the same thing happened the next day? How long do you think it would take every government in the world to get involved and say, ‘This can’t happen anymore’? But that’s exactly what’s happening [because of malnutrition].”
Schiffer, an exuberant 60-year-old native New Yorker, never quite had the time to finish college on the East Coast in the early 1970s — he was too busy getting involved with California’s fledgling home-birth movement back then. “What could be more exciting than being around babies being born?” he asks simply.
But all Schiffer’s boundless energy and love of life stems from spending quite a bit of time thinking about death — nearly touching it, in fact. When he was 30, a minor infection turned into blood poisoning. By the time he sought hospital treatment for what he thought was a weekend bout with the flu, he had only a 10 percent chance of survival.
“I was in a coma for three weeks,” he says. “During that experience, I really saw how thin the thread is that connects us to this life. What I came out of that with was a sense that this is it. What do you want to do with your life? It’s so short. I decided it was worth taking a chance trying to do something really significant and having an impact.”
Schiffer then went into business, building on the knowledge of prenatal health he’d gleaned from the home-birth movement to make waves in the vitamin and supplement industry. He started some national brands, including Cold Season Plus Zinc Lozenges and the reformulated Dr. Atkins Shake Mix, which are still sold in 30,000 to 40,000 stores nationwide. From there, he branched out to start his own vitamin company. But after 14 years, Schiffer found himself considering his own epitaph again.
“I thought, Do I really want them to write, ‘He sold a lot of products’ on my tombstone?” he says. “I’d been led into this industry to make a difference, so why not try to make a big difference around the world?”
Those were his thoughts in 1994 when the Northridge earthquake struck Southern California and a relief-agency worker asked for his help distributing vitamins to victimized children. “No matter what the disaster or where it is, children under 5 will be the most vulnerable, and the leading cause is chronic malnutrition, whether they die from measles or chronic diarrhea. Their bodies can’t fight something as simple as childhood illness,” Schiffer explains. “I knew all these people in the industry, so I asked them to donate products [for relief workers to distribute]. That’s how Vitamin Angels was born.”
And that’s how Schiffer stumbled into his life’s work. Over the next 10 years, Vitamin Angels distributed 23.4 million vitamins. In 2005, which began with a tsunami and ended with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it gave 100 million. In 2009, Vitamin Angels reached 10 million children in 40 nations on four continents, and it will double that to 20 million by the end of this year.
Vitamin Angels’ long reach is due in large part to its design: More than 100 companies donate ingredients, packaging, shipping or finished products to the program, which then gets it to organizations already working in the remotest areas of Third World countries for distribution.
“It’s very effective because for $1, we get $25 to $40 worth of products delivered, using other people’s infrastructure,” Schiffer says. “The other thing is, when you rely on people in the country, you’re saying to them, ‘Here, you do it. You know the people and the culture and the transportation. We’re going to tell you about the product and how to administer it, but it’s your program and you get to figure out the rest of it.’ It’s much more a business model than a philanthropic model. If they can figure out how to get the product to the villages, we’ll give them more.”That model also allows Vitamin Angels to make sure 95 to 97 cents of every dollar it receives go directly to the field. Until 2005, the group operated strictly on a volunteer basis, but with the increase in natural disasters, it now employs a staff of 12 operating on a shoestring budget out of a bare-bones office in Santa Barbara, Calif. All its advertising is donated; the independent evaluation group Charity Navigator has given Vitamin Angels a five-star rating the last four years in a row.
That track record, along with Schiffer’s obvious love for the work, attracts businesspeople like flies to honey. And they give, not only from their checkbooks but also from their calendars. “There are so many times when I give a speech at these very conservative corporations, and I have executives from billion-dollar companies in tears,” he says. “For most people who come out in the field with me, it’s the first time they’ve ever been close to the developing world. They’re so moved by the beauty of these children.”
One of those businesspeople is Vitamin Shoppe COO Tom Tolworthy, who met Schiffer at a 2006 fundraiser and spent four days in the Dominican Republic with him in April on one of the half-dozen field trips Schiffer makes annually.
When a relief worker told them about the horrendous conditions on a former sugar plantation just across the border in Haiti, Schiffer decided to ditch the itinerary and visit on the spot. “We got there, and there were maybe 25 people — but within the hour, that grew to 400, a lot of pregnant women and children,” Tolworthy recalls. “It’s a bit overwhelming, like standing in the wind and trying to blow back at it, but you realize one person at a time, you help. This town was really responding to someone who had something to help them, and they lined up to see what it was about. It was impressive to see the folks on the ground who deal with this every day. There was no TV ad, no bulk e-mail sent out — just walking around knocking on doors. And 400 people showed up.”
Schiffer had no way of knowing, back in 1994, that he held the key to an interlocking set of problems. But he found out in 2006, when the Copenhagen Consensus, a Danish think tank, released a report on the most cost-effective solutions to major global problems — everything from malaria to terrorism. At the top of the list: micronutrient supplementation. Every dollar spent on vitamin supplementation returns $17 worth of benefits in the form of better health, fewer deaths and increased future earnings.
“People are more vulnerable to extremist messages when their kids are dying,” Schiffer says. “It’s one of those situations where once you start to solve basic nutrition, everything starts to improve. It doesn’t happen overnight, but at that point, these people can figure out the solutions to their own problems because their kids aren’t dying.”