Soft Landing Missoula’s new impact director optimistic about local immigration efforts

Maria Netzloff, new donor engagement and impact director at Soft Landing Missoula, aims to strengthen the nonprofit’s already close relationships with donors and volunteers as they support refugee resettlement. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Soft Landing Missoula has a new influencer, in social media parlance. 

But Maria Netzloff’s strength seems to be old-school, person-to-person contact, a key strategy when meeting refugees, donors and volunteers who stop by the office to visit, study, learn, share cultures and socialize.

Netzloff is Soft Landing Missoula’s new donor engagement and impact director – a hybrid job description that she helped create. 

“Often, in nonprofit speak, it’s ‘development director,’ but I’m fortunate enough in this new position as a dedicated staff person to sort of create my role,” she said.

Netzloff, an amiable, approachable fundraiser in the nonprofit world, came from Garden City Harvest, where she wrote grants and raised funds for about six years. She moved up from development coordinator to development director at Garden City Harvest. Before that, she served with AmeriCorps Vista in Austin, Texas.

She’s earned her stripes, so to speak, so Soft Landings Missoula Executive Director Mary Poole, for one, sought her input on her new title.

“We engage over 200 volunteers. In 2018, more than 400 donors supported Soft Landing Missoula,” said Netzloff. “I wanted my title to sort of put donors and volunteers front and center and emphasize the focus on them and their commitment to the organization.”

Poole, who started out as a volunteer when the nonprofit was in its infancy four years ago, said Netzloff fits in nicely with the staff. 

So staying in close contact with donors and volunteers – sometimes one and the same – is crucial to Soft Landing’s growth. 

Over 300 refugees still reside in Missoula and call it home, thanks to Soft Landing and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which works with the state department to help enroll children in local schools, find apartments for families and first jobs for parents.

The Missoula refugees hail from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of the 300 resettled in Missoula, roughly 200 remain.

“That said, offices across the county are being impacted,” Poole added. “But that’s also been happening over the past three years. Our office has been pretty much insulated from that because we’re small, because we’re new, because we have such a supportive community. It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening. But we still remain optimistic about Missoula’s situation.”

Maria Netzloff, left, and Soft Landing Missoula Executive Director Mary Poole combine their talents supporting local refugees. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Part of Netzloff’s job is to communicate Soft Landing’s mission and nurture relationships.

“But with that comes additional financial responsibility,” said Poole, “so part of it is that Maria makes sure we are sustainable – and that we’re doing what needs to be done to raise money in the community.” 

Netzloff, 31, has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Montana, where she also earned a certificate in nonprofit administration. Her combination of skills seems a natural fit.

Mentor Jean Zosel, Garden City Harvest executive director, describes her in a nutshell. 

“Maria is an incredibly intelligent, empathetic, and fun person,” said Zosel. “I was privileged to work with her at Garden City Harvest for five years and I enjoyed watching her learn and grow in her role with us. 

“She has now taken those skills to her role at Soft Landing, an organization that is near and dear to her. I have every confidence she will serve them well.”

Since the Trump administration put an 18,000 cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States in 2020, it’s unclear how the mandate will affect nonprofits like Soft Landing, a support system for IRC. 

“We don’t know how that will affect Missoula,” said Poole, who remains cautiously optimistic. “We would have no indication that that support would decline. Right now, there’s uncertainty, but there’s not an inevitability of our office being affected.”

Previous caps on refugees included 30,000 in 2019 and 45,000 in 2018 – gradually declining since the last year of the Obama administration, when the cap was 110,000, Poole said. 

The average limit on refugees since 1980 has been about 95,000 per year. All told, since 1980 more than three million refugees have resettled in the U.S.

Netzloff’s presence doubles Soft Landing’s staff, proof that the nonprofit remains solid and on the upswing.

Meanwhile, Netzloff enjoys meeting the refugees who drop in, including kids for after-school tutoring and an upcoming pumpkin carving party. An obvious strength is her openness.

“I have a lot to learn,” Netzloff said.