How a Nonprofit Finds the Money to Keep Delivering Meals to People With HIV/AIDS

Founded in 1989 by charismatic Hollywood spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, Project Angel Food’s original mission was to supply food and counseling to patients left homebound by the AIDS crisis. Today the nonprofit cooks and delivers 10,000 meals each week to people living with cancer, kidney dialysis, heart disease and lung disease and HIV/AIDS.

That's a sizeable operation, and finding the funding to keep such direct service work going year in and year out can be no easy thing. Here's a look at how Project Angel Food makes it happen. 

First some background: In this day of HIV drug therapies that allows patients like Magic Johnson to now handle HIV as a survivable, chronic disease, it’s hard for us to recall the treatment landscape in 1989. AIDS deaths were rapidly increasing year over year. It would soon become the number one cause of death for U.S. men ages 25 to 44. Instead of today’s multi-pronged pharmaceutical attack, one anti-retroviral drug had been approved, zidovudine (AZT). The disease often led to AIDS wasting syndrome where patients lost their appetites and entered a downward spiral of weight loss.

Inspired by Hippocrates who said "Let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food," Project Angel Food was launched in 1989 to supply dietetically appropriate meals and counseling to 15 patients left home bound by the AIDS crisis. It was founded as an outreach program of the Los Angeles Center for Living by charismatic Hollywood spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson, and 10 others.  

Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson and David Kessler held the first fundraiser, bringing in $11,000 but that was barely enough money to keep the charity functioning. It had to get more creative to survive. In 1990, it held an art auction, Angel Art, that raised more than $540,000, boosted by the contributions of David Geffen and Barry Diller. By 1992, Project Angel Food was supplying nearly 400 daily meals but money was still tight leading to infighting and a raft of problems. It shut down its counseling services. Eight employees were let go or quit, including the executive director. Williamson and other board members resigned. The charity stayed afloat due to a grant of $150,000 from the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, donations in memory of actor Anthony Perkins, who had died recently of AIDS, and Williamson‘s pledge of personally underwriting the $50,000 cost of a celebrity flea market.

Today the charity is run by an Emmy Award winning television producer, Richard Ayoub. Angel Food’s new Executive Director oversees a $4 million annual budget for a charity that cooks and delivers 10,000 meals each week in Los Angeles to people living with cancer, kidney failure, heart disease and lung disease and HIV/AIDS. “I’ve always had a passion to make a difference in my small part of the world,” Ayoub told Inside Philanthropy. “Our clients are people who are sick, at home; 50 percent of them live alone. Many have become forgotten by their family and friends.” According to Ayoub, Williamson to this day makes the point, “We’re not just delivering food, we’re delivering love.” 

Related: Get Out There and Sell: How One Local Meals on Wheels Keeps Rolling

Ayoub led us through the details of Project Angel Food's revenues. “Our funding comes from corporations, foundations, individuals and events. We do get 10 percent of our funding from the government,” he said. “The events do very well for us as do the online donations." On this last point, Ayoub told us that early this year Project Angel Food did a text-a-thon around the time it delivered its 10 millionth meal. With the help of local media, the push raised $25,000 in a 19-hour period.  

Other sources of revenue included bequests, with Project Angel Food doing well on the planned giving front. Grants are important, too. 

“We have multiple grants, in fact we get $1.2 million in grants per year,” Ayoub said. “Wells Fargo has been very generous to us for a long period of time.” The Weingart Foundation, the M.A.C. AIDS Fund and the Annenberg Foundation have been six figure donors in the past few years. The Annenberg Foundation also helped with the $800,000 cost of building out the kitchen in Angle Food’s headquarters.

Events also bring in money. “Our tent pole event is the Angel Awards, which is a gala in our parking lot under the stars,” Ayoub said. Food is supplied by the Angel Food kitchen so that donors get to experience the quality of Angel Food’s cuisine while costs are kept low. “You get so close to the mission and there is no other charity in Los Angeles doing this.”

Meanwhile, Ayoub has been keen on raising local awareness about the organization. He has turned to small community newspapers as a way to promote Project Angel Food—and raise money. When the charity’s delivery van started to wear out from high mileage, Ayoub got the Beverly Press, a local supplement of the Los Angeles Times, to write about the need to keep food deliveries going to Angel Food’s 400 square mile service area. In an article printed Christmas Day, the paper quoted the driver saying, “All I want for Christmas is a brand new van.”

At $40,000, the cost was substantial. Ayoub hoped that the publicity would generate some contributions. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day Ayoub got a call from jazz musician Corky Hale, married to songwriter Mike Stoller of the team Leiber & Stoller. Hale said, “‘We read your story, we were very moved by it, we’re going to buy you the van.’ One donor gave us $40,000 to buy that van from one article,” Ayoub said.

Ayoub said that one of the challenges he faces in fundraising is that the general public assumes that the AIDS crisis is over, because deaths from HIV have fallen precipitously from their peak in 2004. Today, however, patients who have been on anti-viral medication for 20 years or more are showing the side effects of the drugs, and have resumed relying on Angel Food. “People who took crixivan often now have brittle bones,” Ayoub said.

Related: How the Annenberg Foundation supports LA’s Aging LGBT Population

What advice would he give to other nonprofits? “Make sure that you keep in touch with donors. Don’t always ask them for money, but let them know what is happening with the organization. Call to thank them, don’t call just to ask ‘where’s your check?’”

Ayoub loves his work, and sees what he does as making a difference. He does his best to implement Project Angel Food’s motto, “For life, for love, as long as it takes.”