The Nonprofit Welcome Wagon: How to Engage Newcomers and Build a Strong Community – Through Volunteering

Guest post by Dylan Manderlink

Dylan volunteering at an animal shelter in her new home.
Dylan volunteering at an animal shelter in her new home.

Upon moving to rural Arkansas from Boston, I had anticipated the reality of how different my new life would be down south. From the great distance between towns, expansive farmland, to the welcoming and warm southern accents, I expected my adjustment to take some time and happen gradually.

Although that’s not completely untrue, through the volunteer opportunities I have taken advantage of and the connections I’ve made to local nonprofits since being here, I feel as if my acclimation was smoother, quicker, and more fruitful than I had originally thought. From volunteering at a local animal shelter once a week, to joining a women’s rights and empowerment organization once a month, I involved myself, my passions, and my talents with the community I now live in. And in return, I have felt welcomed, familiarized, and positively acknowledged in a town that I now call home, despite only having lived here for two months.

Because of the initiative local nonprofit workers have made to involve me, get to know me on both a personal and professional level, and accommodate my unique background, passion, and skills, I have felt a sense of inclusivity and comfort that I didn’t expect within the first two months of living in a new part of the country.

A Pattern of Inclusion is Established

Looking back at my four years of college, I remember searching for nonprofits to get involved with, regular volunteer opportunities to take on, and local events to attend to better understand the new community and major city I was about to live in for four years. In just my first semester alone, I was connecting with passionate nonprofit professionals who deeply cared about the wellbeing of their city and its residents: civilians of Boston who lived in the community for years and years, students from different local colleges and universities, and community members who were experiencing the unfortunate realities of many social injustices.

Through these personal connections, I felt a deeper sense of purpose in my community and a strong feeling of gratitude towards the city and its unique people. Through my nonprofit and community service involvement, I was able to examine my community in a unique, personalized, and impactful way. I felt like I had been an active part in creating community ties and building a sense of unity among the people I was meeting.

Moving to Arkansas has really been no different in that sense, which proves to me that the spirit of volunteerism, community change, and social impact run strong in the nonprofit sector, no matter where you are.

A New Home

Upon transitioning from Boston to Arkansas, I was unsure what the nonprofit landscape would look like down south and what volunteer opportunities I would be able to take part in. At first, it was challenging to remove my urban lens when looking for nonprofit opportunities. Coming from a city, I had never partnered with organizations from rural communities, nor had I connected with professionals whose nonprofits weren’t based in or focused on a specific urban area.

But within days of reaching out to local nonprofits in Arkansas, I was receiving positive, eager, and personal responses. The nonprofit professionals I connected with expressed such thanks for me reaching out and were committed to involving me in the organization right away.

Dylan meets fellow volunteers at a women's rights and empowerment organization in her new hometown.
Dylan meets fellow volunteers at a women’s rights and empowerment organization in her new hometown.

Two weeks ago I attended my first meeting with the women’s rights and empowerment organization I have recently become a member of. Despite not having met any of the women prior, and really only having a brief but very warm email exchange with the director of the group, the moment I entered the meeting as a non-Arkansas native and brand new community member, I was greeted with heartfelt appreciation, warmth, and genuine compassion.

I felt immediately at home amongst such passionate, hard-working, and big-hearted activists. The women made such a genuine effort to get to know me, where I’m from originally, the college I attended, what I studied, and above all – what brought me to Arkansas and how they can help connect me more to the community through service and advocacy. I spent the whole morning creating meaningful connections and sharing vibrant stories about justice and equality with women whom I would have never met otherwise, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and befriend activists in my new community.

Through my very recent experiences of being thoughtfully welcomed and eagerly incorporated into my Arkansas community’s nonprofit landscape, the transition from the northeast to deep south that was once full of uncertainty is now more comfortable, warm, and fruitful than I could have ever imagined.

A Call to Nonprofits

I am full of immense gratitude for the inclusive and encouraging experiences these nonprofits have provided for me since being here, and I would prompt nonprofits around the country to focus on volunteer outreach to those community members who are brand new and may be feeling a little out of place. The compassion of nonprofit professionals can bridge the gap from unfamiliar to at home for a new community member in such a unique, meaningful, and passionate way.

I encourage nonprofits to search for outlets in their community where they can connect with and motivate new residents. It is important to encourage and support alternative perspectives when focusing on volunteerism and social/environmental justice work, so welcoming new viewpoints from nonnative voices to your community will be undoubtedly advantageous in enriching and diversifying the cause your organization is fighting for.

How does your nonprofit welcome newcomers to your community? Tell us about it below!

Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.

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