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Meet Vivian Borja from Food For The Poor

Vivian Borja shares her career journey from working in the for-profit sector to becoming the Chief Marketing Officer at Food For The Poor. She highlights the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and the importance of facilitating paths to self-sufficiency for communities.

In this episode of the RKD Group: Chat podcast,  Vivian also discusses the importance of happiness and acts of generosity, as well as the challenges and advantages of transitioning from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector.

 

 

Show chapters

  • 0:00 Introduction and Countdown 
  • 0:43 Vivian's Career Path and Transition to the Nonprofit Sector 
  • 11:12 Adopting Best Practices and Technology in the Nonprofit Sector 
  • 14:19 The Influence of Teaching on Vivian's Leadership Style 
  • 26:00 The Importance of Digital Transformation in the Nonprofit Sector 
  • 30:20 Finding Beauty in Imperfection and Aligning Passion, Skills, and Purpose 
 

Meet our guest

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Transcript

Kate McKinley 

Welcome back to RKD Group: Chat. 

Today, I have the honor of sitting down and chatting with Vivian Borja. Vivian is the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Food for the Poor, a faith-based organization that provides food, housing, health care, education, relief services and so much more to countries primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Vivian's story starts in Ecuador where she was born and raised. And through many twists and turns, working for the government and then later in for-profit marketing and communications, ultimately lands her in the nonprofit space. It's a very impressive resume that I'll let her dive into the details of now. 

 

Vivian Borja 

So, it actually starts in Ecuador. So, I was born and raised in Ecuador, and I studied international relations. So, the connection with France, hence, all this would. 

While I was studying international relations, I came to France to study, also because French is, like, the diplomatic language. 

So that was really … and then I was part of the state department, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to be with the official name in Ecuador. 

So, I was the youngest official. I was twenty-one at that time. I would spare the details of the year not to give away my age. I think the wrinkles are giving it up. But anyways … and then I was lucky enough, with the ambassador at that time that I was working, he was in charge of all these multilateral organizations and their relationship with the Ecuadorian government. So I went to work with him, and I had the opportunity to work with the United Nations and the Organization of American States. And in those years, it was pretty recent [that there were] big conferences from the United Nations in terms of human rights and women's rights, and children's rights. So I was working a lot for the Ecuadorian government with that, and I had to work a lot with nonprofits. It was fascinating. 

I loved my work there. And in the twists and turns of life, I met there a former president of Ecuador, and he had, like, the largest law firm in the country. And I was helping him because he was coming to the ministry and so forth. It's a long story. In short, he said these words, “Oh, you should come and work with me, and you should do marketing for my law firm.” 

And I was like, okay. I was twenty-one. I didn't even study marketing at that point. I was like, that sounds fun. 

And I have no idea, but great. 

So that's really how the marketing path takes shape and form from the most, like, you know, really out of a left field. 

And while there, he, he was a really … he, he passed a couple of years ago, but he was, really, a great mentor. 

And he said to me, you're really good at this thing. We were laughing because I was like, I was twenty-one; I had no idea. He was like, you're really good at this. You should formalize your studies and go to the States and pursue an MBA in marketing. 

So, that's when I came to the States, and the whole idea was to come here for my two years for my MBA. But I met my husband, who happens to be French, so always there's that French connection. 

And, and then I graduated, and then officially I started my career in the States in marketing at Johnson and Johnson. Amazing organization in the for-profit world.  

But two, I, I would say, two important milestones, or those moments that mark you, was meeting that former president, who said, you should do marketing for my law firm. And then, having the opportunity after I graduated from the MBA, so fresh out of the university, to go to Johnson and Johnson because it's really a marketing-driven organization. So I, I could really … it was more than the theoretical of principles; it was really putting it in practice. 

And the marketing department's a huge organization, obviously, but that marketing department was humongous. So there was so much to learn, very process-oriented. We needed to follow Six Sigma. So, from there starts all this love that I have for stats, and numbers, and lean processes and Six Sigma. 

And, yep, I did all my career in the for-profit world: financial services, medical devices. So, I, I was also at Microsoft. So, very big corporations, I would say, Fortune five hundred corporations, Western Union, Medtronic, Microsoft, Johnson and Johnson. So … and I had the opportunity to go up the ladder, if you will, and boom, the pandemic hits. 

 

Kate McKinley 

I'm gonna pause quickly here because after working her way up the ladder for major companies with huge marketing budgets, Vivian shared with me that she had kind of a moment in 2020 that led her to transition from the commercial space to the nonprofit space. 

 

Vivian Borja 

I think like everybody else, you know, self-introspection, reflection, all those things, right? Well, you are, like, bored at home and streaming on Netflix. 

And, again, third milestone day in my life: I'm like, okay. What do we watch now? And I got into this documentary. 

It's called “Happy,” and I was very curious. I'm like, oh, let's look at this. And it was very interesting because it's a, it's a beautiful documentary. It's simple in its, I guess, framework and what they were trying to do. 

But the the, the whole thing with the documentary is that it's a group of scientists, and neurologists, and neuroscientists, and psychiatrists and psychologists, you name it. And they were coming together, and they were saying, well, we've always done these studies about depression, and we know the chemical imbalances in your brain when we, you know, people get depressed. And there's these old MRI scans. But why have we never done this to understand what happens in the brain, when human beings are happy? 

So they hooked me right in there, and it's incredible because, I'm gonna give it away if you haven't watched it. Have you watched it, Kate? You haven't? It's, it's really good because … I'm, I'm gonna ruin it for you, though, but it's gonna be interesting. 

But the whole conclusion―and this is scientifically proven, how it, like, raises your levels of dopamine, and serotonin and all of that in your brain―it's acts of generosity, like, real acts of generosity coming from the heart. And the studies were done, and you could see in the MRIs, you know, how your chemicals in the brain are shooting up. But the cool thing about it is that this is across cultures, religions, countries―because they were doing these studies in, you know, the most upscale places in India―and in all it is this common thread and this common denominator: what makes, regardless of any social, cultural situation, what makes humans happy is to help other humans. And it's very simple yet so beautiful, and I guess with the pandemic, it just hit me. 

And I was, that's the third milestone. I gotta do something. I wanna be happy too. I wanna help other people. And, you know, hopefully, I'm not sounding too cheesy, but it was surreal. 

It was real. And then, I would say, probably it, it, it happened so soon. I wasn't planning to make a change from the for-profit world to nonprofit. It, it was just so sudden and so soon. And I'm on LinkedIn, and I see Chief Marketing Officer of Food for the Poor. And I had the documentary fresh because I had watched it, like, a couple of days, before. 

So I just hit ‘Apply.’ 

And that's how we got started two years ago. So I've been with Food for the Poor since two years ago, and Food for the Poor has this beautiful mission. 

It's … I, I remember during the interview―and, and it's another cheesy moment, but it really also hit me―I'm talking to our CEO, to Ed, and, and I, it was fascinating because Food for the Poor, that name can be deceiving, thinking, oh, it's, you know, alleviating hunger, but we do so much more. It's really alleviating poverty in a 360 degree focus. Right? It's all of the dimensions of poverty. 

And he said to me, “Well, Vivian, you know, we're not just building things, a house or a school or a medical facility. We're really building lives.” 

So that was like, you know? So those are, like, the, like, if you will, the, the big moments in, in life that are, can be, very small in nature, but that can, you know, really, like, change your entire trajectory. 

 

Kate McKinley 

As you'll hear Vivian share, a big reason why she joined the nonprofit world is to have that larger sense of purpose and meaning in her life. But despite an impressive resume leading into her time at Food for the Poor, she shared that she still experienced a little bit of an adjustment period. 

 

Vivian Borja 

It's the purpose and the meaning, I guess. We are all at the end of the day, I do think, all, all of us, all human beings, we're in the pursuit of that, purpose and meaning. Right? So, having the opportunity, isn't it beautiful that’s how we find purpose? Back to the documentary, isn't it beautiful that what really makes us happy is always in this pursuit of happiness? 

And, oftentimes, we can easily be trapped into, you know, material things or what have you. But isn't it so beautiful to release? It’s beentypically proven what makes us happy is to genuinely serve and, and, and help, you know, our fellow human citizens. 

It was funny because at the, at the beginning, I guess, two things were happening to me. At first, I was a little bit self-conscious, like, almost apologetically. Like, I'm sorry, I'm coming from the for-profit world. 

So that was, like, my first reaction. And then it was a little bit of also a shock because, you hear it, yes, that the nonprofit world might be a little bit behind, in the adoption of new technology, especially, or best practices. 

And I think we can all concur that it's true. But now after these two years, I actually feel that coming from the for-profit world is actually advantageous to really accelerate our missions because if any vertical in the world deserves to be in the forefront it’s nonprofit. The nonprofit sector, I think it's the other way around. I think we should be, you know, be looked up to and the for-profit guys and girls saying, oh, we should be doing what the nonprofit sector is doing. The smartest, and the brightest, and the newest technology and their early adopters, I actually think it should be like that because technology should be at the service of human beings. 

Best practices should be at the service of human beings. So I actually … these two years have really shifted my, my, even myself, you know, that conscious thing of, “Oh, no, I'm sorry, I'm coming from …” No, I'm like, “Yes. I come from the for-profit world.” There is a great best practice, even risk taking, in, in a way, and adopting technology to always, evolve. 

And evolution is really, really important because the world is constantly changing. It's happening in the for-profit and in the nonprofit world, right, with the donors who have now new behaviors, are more cost driven. We're seeing all of that, and … you don't wanna cease to exist. Right?  

So going back again, I'm also so happy with Johnson and Johnson because that was how all this management framework of lean thinking and continuous process improvement, all the way from the Toyota production system, it is in achieving added value and zero waste, all those best practices we've seen. And, and, and I'm so happy to hear we, we are adopting that and also some other nonprofits that are adopting, having those, you know, that business acumen, if you will, to put it also to good service because the more efficient we can be, the more families and communities we can help. 

 

Kate McKinley 

Another big part of Vivian's story and desire to find a larger sense of purpose and meaning is her role as a professor and mentor to college students at Miami Dade College. As she shared a little bit about her experience, you could sense the joy, warmth and love for this special part of her life. 

 

Vivian Borja 

Oh, that's gonna be a soft spot. So first, I'm a nerd at heart, and I love academia. So it's funny because many of my team members, it, it really started like that. I, I wasn't noticed, and hopefully it wasn't a, a lot of lecturing, but I, I was always very purposeful with my teams to really say, okay, we're doing this, but do we all understand? And why are we doing this? And looking at the numbers and always, like, finding the why. Right? And why are we doing this? What are the results that we expect? 

And one of my team members, like, again, just brought it, like, you know, very, like, oh, Vivian, I think you're really good at this. Have you ever thought about teaching? 

Then I was, no. But now I'm curious. 

And I, I met a professor at AUM, and he invited me from, for some lectures. 

And the first one, I just loved it. The energy from the students, and the exchange of information and the knowledge sharing. So blah. Yeah. 

I was like, okay. I'm sold. This is wonderful. This is amazing. 

So then I started pursuing it. And … but I wanted to, I was very purposeful, I wanted to look into, you know, in, in areas maybe that could be underserved and more of also going back to my roots, more into Hispanic communities and all of that, community colleges, and … I wouldn't say it’s a hobby because it's a lot of work. I never worked so hard, and then I, I easily, being a nerd that hard, easily can get so hyperfocused. I will be at 5:00 a.m. preparing, you know, the lessons. 

But it was such a joy to do it, and having, I guess, the exchange of information and conversation with the students is just fascinating. And I love digital marketing. I love it. Love it. 

So, it was really putting two passions together, and, and I have really enjoyed it. But all respects for our teachers and professors, it's hard, hard work because we are just thinking at the time of the lecture, I had this class. There were, like, three, my students. 

Students, hi. Thank you for bearing with me for three hours. 

Those were long. Yes. 

But it's not only those three hours. It's preparing. 

And then after the class also, you know, everything that comes, and questions and also being in touch with the students, making sure because there's … imagine investing those three hours. But for me, it was really important to always confirm. I was obsessed with that. I always confirmed that all my students were really digesting the information. 

 

Kate McKinley 

Before we dive into Vivian's day to day at Food for the Poor, I wanted to take a minute to let her highlight what Food for the Poor's mission and purpose is all about. 

 

Vivian Borja 

The name can be deceiving. 

It's not only food. 

The beauty of our mission is that it's really creating, facilitating, right, paths to alleviate poverty. And poverty is multi-dimensional. It's not just having a safe house, or going to school, or food, right? Or, or malnutrition. It, it is complex, And it requires partners, and it requires a big effort that we are doing. We, we work with partners. 

We really understand all these factors. We have an asset-based approach. So that's another thing that we look at―not every community is the same. Right? So when we go into a community, we want really to make the community self-sufficient. 

It is not providing aid and then having this community being dependent of this international aid. It's really looking at the strengths of these communities and helping so they can thrive independently. 

And, and it's, it's a big effort. So that is really Food for the Poor. I know that name could be like, well, it's just, you know, food. 

And so, so that is for me the, the biggest thing that I always like to share because the work is incredible. Then that we work in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

And, third, that we've been doing this for over forty years. 

So there's, there's a lot of great work that it's being done and, and how, again, we approach this community. So, they are the, the end goals. Transforming lives. Right? Those paths to alleviate poverty, to really transform lives by these communities really being self-sufficient. And we started one person, one family, one community, but that's the beauty when, when now we can do it at scale and have that multiplier effect. 

 

Kate McKinley 

So I think it's important to share a little bit about Food for the Poor's mission first because, as you'll hear in this next clip, Vivian's most memorable moments from her time at the organization are ones where she's been able to most live and see the impact of the mission firsthand. 

 

Vivian Borja 

So, a couple of things, just starting, it was incredible because the, the, just the mission is beautiful. 

It's also a Christian organization, a faith-based organization, so being able to be closer to my faith. So there, there are a lot of amazing things there. But one of them, digital transformation, and really helping going through it, the digital transformation of the organization. 

But I would say, a highlight was a mission trip, to Honduras, and we were visiting one of our sustainable community developments. And so those are incredible because you, you see this community thriving and how they have houses, and they have community centers, and they have youth centers, and schools, and health care facilities, and then access to what are all these amazing, really, right, the, the 360 being in play really to help these communities to be self-sustained because we always wanna exit. Right? 

And I was visiting the school―so this is really nice. Again, all came together full circle―and I'm visiting the school, and I'm seeing this, like, it's little kids. And, and imagine the teacher getting onto this bus for hours to be able to teach these kids, and they're all together in the classroom. 

And I don't know why, but at some moment, I, I'm in the school, and I'm happy because that's what I love. And I see how the kids are learning and how we, thanks to our generous donors, all these kids, very underserved―they used to live in a dumpster in Honduras. Now they live in this thriving community, and are studying, and they're with their school uniforms. 

But I don't know. It, it just hit me. So I had to leave the classroom, and I'm, like, leaning against the wall just, like, soaking it all in, you know, being, you know, very pensive, I guess. And, and all of a sudden, I feel this warm embrace, and there's, like, two little girls that I think they noticed that I left the classroom and that I'm all, like, you know, in, in my mood. And they had the biggest, brightest, most beautiful smiles, and they're, like, hugging me. 

And I'm like, oh, this is, this is it. 

This is it. This is it. 

This is, this is … this is the why. 

This is my why, at least. This is my why of why. I'm so happy to be at Food for the Poor. It's a joy and actually a privilege and honor to, to serve for the mission. That, that is exactly this beautiful, tiny moment. 

 

Kate McKinley 

So, a typical day for Vivian is meeting-heavy, but her perspective on the daily balance between marketing and fundraising, or as she likes to call it, being fundable and findable, is something that I think many listening can probably relate to. 

 

Vivian Borja 

 First, a typical day, how it looks: lot of meetings. A lot of meetings, and a lot of emails, but it, I, I enjoy it.  

I, I do have quite a large team, a wonderful team. But I would say we're very data-driven. So we're always analyzing our numbers, and optimizing, and making decisions based on what the data is telling us and then implementing that to best serve the communities we serve, and also in terms of stewardship, for our donors and their gifts. 

And for us, I like to say that branding first, funding second. Right? And we work on a scale that we want to be fundable. So, our theory of change, what is that broader social impact that Food for the Poor is really working hard for? Alleviating poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, but really empowering these communities, all of that, having it in in our strategic plan. So, being very purposeful on that theory of change, on creating that positive impact. So that comes first. 

And, and then, and then comes marketing. Right? Now that we're fundable, let's be findable. So, working on our brand so they can find us and we can present our unique value proposition. So, all the marketing, we apply it. All the best practices, all the terminology, we apply it. And, and then, of course, you know, I'm working on, in terms of engaging our donors, communicating with our donors based on their interests, updating our donors on how we're stewarding their dollars and, and the impact, constantly communicating that impact that they actually help us achieve. 

 

Kate McKinley 

Vivian also shared two challenges her team has been facing in today's fundraising landscape that I wanted to highlight here in case it's something that your organization is going through as well, or maybe you can take a little bit of advice from. 

 

Vivian Borja 

I, I think it's really―and me, again, coming from the for-profit world―it’s really adopting and adapting to a digital world. And … and, really, it's not an easy task. 

We need to understand it, embrace it and actually push forward because it's, it's the most efficient way. It's the way the world lives now. It's also the most preferred method that we have put out several surveys to our donors. It's their preferred method. 

So really … and, and digital marketing is a science. It's not just, oh, a website, or an email or social media. There’s so much more to it. So really understanding how it all works and embracing it. 

So that, I would say, it's my priority number one. And then priority number two, also in the U.S., I think we need to be inclusive. 

And with that, I guess, me, probably the … because I'm Hispanic, there’s such a big Hispanic community here, and they're under-solicited. 

So, there is a big opportunity there to bring Hispanic communities―which is the fastest growing minority in the U.S.―and in … culturally and in charity, it's, it's, it's deep in the DNA. You see all these families that send, you know, send their money back to many of their countries. Right? So I would say, they're one of the most, one of the most generous diasporas. So, also working into, you know, really engaging those Hispanic donors to get acquainted with the, the brand, and the mission, and, and the work and the impact. 

 

Kate McKinley 

At the end of that clip, you heard Vivian mention the importance of inclusive and diverse marketing. 

And I wanted to spend a little bit more time discussing her perspective on inclusive marketing, first because it's such an important piece of her work, but also because she's Hispanic. And she's been able to leverage her lived experiences to help Food for the Poor connect with Hispanic donors. 

 

Vivian Borja 

For sure. And, and I think it's understanding also the, the, the audience, right, and having an audience-first approach and really understanding that Hispanics have their own set of values, and beliefs, and trigger points and/or passion points. And they're very family-oriented, community-oriented. Religion is a very important factor in life. Children. So, it's really understanding and being culturally relevant. It's not just translating, you know, what you have here to Spanish and, oh, that will make it. It's, it's, it's really understanding the audience, like you do it for, you know, in any marketing exercise. Right? 

And make it, I think it’s very, very important to make it culturally relevant. It's not just a translation. 

I would say, this is the only time that I will bring my own background into play because I get it. I get it. I, I really understand the … the culture. I really understand the passion points. I really understand the differences in, in how we speak. Somebody in Cuba would say, you know, popcorn in Spanish, and how somebody in, in Ecuador would say it, you know, there's all this cultural difference because sometimes we wanna have this blanket approach, “Hispanics,” and it's not even that. Yeah. 

So, I would say, for sure, that is something that my background ... I mean, I try to be very unbiased, if and then, you know, very matter of fact. It's the only time that I would lean into it because I, I, I know. I get it. I've, I've had the experience. 

 

Kate McKinley 

So as we wrapped up our time together, Vivian shared two Japanese terms with me that I think so perfectly sum up her journey, her heart and her desire to find this balance of purpose in her work life. 

 

Vivian Borja 

I also think they perfectly sum up the entire purpose and meaning behind the nonprofit sector. So as we close out this episode, I'll leave you with this. 

I’m obsessed with this, it’s, with all this, like, Japanese terms in, in from lean thinking. 

So, there's two that I, I love, and I try to make them almost like my motto. So, one is wabi sabi, and it's really finding beauty in the imperfection. 

Once you really―it's such a beautiful concept―and once you really absorb it, you set yourself free to do wonderful things and not, you know, not, not stay. It, it allows you to get unstuck. 

And there's the other one, and, and I wanna find … because it's, it's beautiful, it's the intersection of a, a … what you love to do, what you're good at, and it's Ikigai. 

But I, I would love to read it for you because … I hope I can find it soon, though. 

So, it's the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for. 

So it's … and it's, it's, I really think, going back to that question of what we can say to anyone thinking about joining the nonprofit world, you will find your ikigai. 

 

Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs, visit rkdgroup.com. 

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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