Know Your Neighbors: Building Trusting Relationships in Family Philanthropy

Lomakatsi Restoration Project - Tribal Youth Ecological Forestry Program, Chiloquin Trust Lands, Klamath County, OR. Lomakatsi, building on long-term relationships with the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Tribal community, as well as over a decade of collaborative forest restoration on Klamath ancestral lands and in partnership with The Klamath Tribes and the Fremont-Winema National Forest, has been working to restore the Chiloquin Trust Lands. The Tribal Youth Ecological Forestry Program employs Indigenous youth for culturally relevant training and certifications in forestry practices. The Roundhouse Foundation has been a funder, advocate, and supporter of the youth development program for the past several years. More information at Photo Credit: Lomakatsi Restoration Project

Collaboration and partnership are the cornerstones to accomplishing meaningful impact on pressing social issues. But both are difficult to come by due to the inherent power imbalance that exists in philanthropy, where funders control resources needed to support the wellbeing of communities. Trust is required to foster collaborative partnerships between funders and grantees. But how can trust occur if you don’t know your prospective partner?  

At its most basic, grantmaking is a transactional process that moves money from a funder to a nonprofit organization. At its best, philanthropy operates through a series of trusting, respectful relationships that extend from within the boardroom and among staff members, to the community. Through strong relationships, grantmaking goes beyond the transactional and becomes essential pathways to effective collaboration, partnership and, ultimately, impact. That’s why NCFP believes relationships, along with accountability, equity, and learning, are the four core principles that are required for families to be effective in their philanthropy.  

By building authentic relationships with grantees, funders gain a deeper understanding of needs in their communities and are better positioned to be supportive resources and trusted thought partners working towards common goals of impact. Strong relationships are also vital within families, as open dialogue and the ability to navigate conflict are essential to effective governance.  

To explore how funders can prioritize relationships, both internally and externally, to advance their impact, we spoke to Erin Borla, executive director and trustee of the Roundhouse Foundation. Erin, her parents, and the foundation’s staff members have planted deep roots in the communities they fund and offer an example of how to authentically show up as neighbors and funders. As Erin shares from her own experience, building trusting relationships starts with a simple, but powerful act—asking questions, listening hard to hear the answers, and acting in response to what you heard.  

It’s clear that relationships are central to the Roundhouse Foundation’s work. I noticed the first value listed on your website is ‘know your neighbors.’ Why is that particular value at the top of the list? 

It’s important when you live in a small community that you rely on and support each other. We may not all agree on everything. But if somebody has a fire in their barn next door—even if I don’t agree with their politics—I’m going to go help them in their time of need. I’m going to show up with dinner on their doorstep. 

Knowing your neighbors is about knowing what’s happening in their lives so we can support one another—that’s how community works. In philanthropy, we really like to put ourselves in boxes. It’s easy to do that because we are trying to make a strategic change on a discrete, long-range issue. But people are not one-dimensional beings. We have to get to know people, multi-dimensional people, and find out what we have in common. Then, we can disagree, but continue to work together. That’s what makes community work.  

How does the principle of relationships manifest in your grantmaking strategies? 

Well, I don’t think about it as a principle. In philanthropy, we get really academic. Relationships are part of real life and we have to be kind to people, keep people safe, and treat them respectfully. That’s it. You have to be a good person. And I look at our work the same way, keeping kindness and respect at the forefront. Often we don’t listen to hear, we listen while waiting to say something. To build relationships, we have to give people the respect of being heard and of knowing that what they have to say has value.  

Tell me more about what fostering those relationships looks like in practice? What does it mean to show up in communities with respect? 

I think the biggest component of showing up is listening and listening with action behind it. Philanthropy has been engaging in a lot of listening sessions, which I’m tired of because they feel extractive. Philanthropy has been in this mode of ‘we want to hear from you.’ But now we have heard the information and we have to start doing something with it. And our staff members understand that. Most, if not all, of our staff members, have come from nonprofit backgrounds, not from philanthropy. So they understand what it means to work in the field, they understand the system. They show up and truly listen.  

And then there’s showing up for people beyond giving a grant. I worked with this organization in Northeastern Oregon for a really long time. I was super excited about what they were doing. And then our application process came along, and they didn’t apply. I asked why and she said, “I don’t need your money right now. I needed the three introductions you gave me. I’ll need your money in the future, but right now I need a thought partner.” Showing up and being a collaborator who really hears people is a big piece of the relationship-building process because the community might need something different than what you expect. 

There’s also a need for funder-to-funder relationships and collaboration. None of us in philanthropy wants to be the only funder at a table. We should be sharing projects that are important that we think are in each other’s wheelhouse. We should be leaning on each other. When the Roundhouse Foundation expanded its footprint, we had a hard time sourcing more opportunities and couldn’t have done it without collaborative foundation partners.  

I really like that idea of engaging or listening for action. So you’ve talked a lot about external relationships, but how are you building healthy internal relationships with your staff members who bring nonprofit experience to their work and with your family?  

We have a really small trustee base. I’m an only child so it’s me and my parents, and we recently added our first-ever non-family trustee in January 2024. My parents are frugal humans, neither of whom came from means. So this is a unique challenge to be distributing this amount of money. This is monopoly-style money. It‘s a huge privilege and a gift to be stewarding it. Ultimately, we have deep dialogues, challenging conversations, and we support each other. We aim to be kind and respectful in our work with community and try to do the same with one another. We each have skills but recognize that our lived experience is that of one family and there’s gaps and holes. So we have a committee of 20 people from across the state to help inform our open application process. We have a committee of Indigenous advisors that help inform our work with Indigenous people and Native communities. We have a finance committee that helps inform our investment processes. There are roughly 50 volunteers who receive a stipend that support our work, and we are so fortunate to have people that believe in and care about our work. Those are really important relationships for us. 

In terms of staff, we’ve gone from 2 to 14 staff members in the past four years. I’ve always said that we’re looking to build a team, not fill a seat. I can train philanthropy. I can’t train relationship building. And that’s the piece that we need. We need someone that can see another human and what they need before that person asks. 

Philanthropy can be a really lonely place. The first thing I tell our staff is to find a mentor. You’re not going to go home, tell your best friend, your mom, or your partner that you had to give away a hundred thousand dollars and it was really hard because no one’s going to feel sorry for you. And if you want to do it well, it is really hard work and it can be really complicated. So building a team that cares about doing it well and placing the dollars in a way that will be a catalyst for change while supporting each other along the way has been critical.  

Do you have an example of a relationship that was harmed? What did you do to repair that relationship? 

We start by being clear that mistakes happen. Please give us grace. We’re not going to get everything right 100 percent of the time. Just like we don’t expect you to get everything right 100 percent of the time. So we start there.  

When we began our work with Native and Indigenous communities I knew we were going to step in things. You don’t want to screw it up so it’s easier not to do it at all. That was not an acceptable option for us so we charged ahead. There was one instance where there was a pretty significant miscommunication and I got called on the carpet for it. I rearranged my full schedule and made it a priority to meet with the group. It’s about showing up. And showing up again and again. 

Recently, our Indigenous advisory committee was helping me with language for our website about how we ground our work in Indigenous communities. I asked them if I was getting the language correct and one of the additions from a committee member was to make sure you leave room for mistakes. She said, there’s no cancel culture in Native communities and there’s always a road to redemption. I thought that was a really valuable lesson and the more that I look at how we ground our work with Native communities I realize that it’s how we do our work across the board. I ask for feedback along the way with the knowledge that we won’t get everything right. 

As you engage in philanthropy and through your NCFP fellowship try to influence others around you to do philanthropy better, are there conversations popping up around you that are surprising? 

We started this conversation today with a question about why I prioritize knowing my neighbors. And the answer is because that’s who we are. It’s been fascinating to me over the past four years that people are like, “I just don’t understand how you do it.” And I’m like, I don’t understand how you don’t do it. I don’t understand how this is not how you do the work. This has been a very foreign and unexpected, unintended consequence of this work. The short answer is I have no idea what I’m doing other than it feels right, and it feels like we are doing what’s right for the communities we work with. 

Not to toot our own horn, but we recently won the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Oregon and Southwest Washington Association Foundation of the Year award. I got an opportunity to do a brief presentation when we got the award. When I got my certificate in Tribal Relations, I had to do a capstone project. We interviewed a Tribal elder and I asked what he thought of my project. And he said, “I hate certificates, because it means you’re done.” So I shared that in my speech when I received the award, and said “Thank you for the award, but we’re not done. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of work to do together.” If we took the ego out of it, and we relied on each other, we can learn from one another. Let’s figure it out together.  

Learn more about how relationships is an essential principle of effective family philanthropy here and in the video below.