How nonprofit organizations can make internships successful and meaningful for summer students

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Is there a shiny new face in your office this spring? If you have an intern or co-op student working for you this summer, read on to find out how to make the most of the experience. If you don’t have an intern or summer student working for your organization, by the time you’ve finished reading this article, you might wish you did!

Canada is home to more than a million university students, about half of whom, according to the Canadian University Survey Consortium, participate in “experiential learning” such as co-op placements, internships and service learning as part of their education. Enrollment in co-op programs at universities jumped from 53,000 students in 2006 to 65,000 students in 2013. At the same time, students and recent graduates struggle to find summer jobs and work in their field

The charitable sector has a role to play in youth employment. The announcement of Imagine Canada’s new working group studying youth employment in the charitable and nonprofit sector says, “We are well-positioned to offer youth meaningful jobs - we equip youth with skills and knowledge to tackle some of the most challenging issues of our time. We are a diverse group of employers in all areas of the country, providing opportunities where people want to live, and we work with and often employ individuals from marginalized communities.”

There is also incentive for the sector to attract and retain young workers. As the newly released report Young People & The Nonprofit Sector observes, “Young workers are essential to the long-term sustainability of the sector...Without investing in young talent, nonprofit organizations will inevitably experience talent gaps in the future.”

The mission and work of the nonprofit sector appeals to many young people. Many of those interviewed in the Young People & The Nonprofit Sector report “felt that their personal values aligned with the primary objective of the nonprofit sector – creating social good.” They also felt that the nonprofit sector offered more opportunities than other sectors when it came to flexible work, opportunities to learn as they go, and space to be creative and innovative.

But if it seems like a perfect fit, why doesn’t every nonprofit hire an intern or summer student?

It sometimes comes down to money

Like many good things in the nonprofit sector, sometimes money becomes a barrier. While unpaid internships used to be the norm, today most provinces have labour laws in place to protect young workers.

While some nonprofits include paid internships in their regular budget, others are finding creative ways to fund these staff.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Waterloo Region was approached by the University of Waterloo, which had been contacted by an anonymous family foundation wanting to make a significant impact. After discussion, the foundation agreed to fund a series of six co-op student placements for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Big Brothers Big Sisters Resource Development Manager Mallory Boyer says, “We wouldn’t have been able to hire students without this benefactor. We’re all very excited about the success of this innovative funding model.” Other organizations work directly with their corporate sponsors, asking them to “hire a student and give that student to the charity,” says Kirk Patterson, Business Developer, Cooperative Education & Career Action, University of Waterloo.

As part of a commitment to youth employment and training, various levels of government offer funding for nonprofits (and other organizations) in order to subsidize the costs of hiring students and graduates. While these programs often change from year to year, lists of such programs can be found on federal and provincial government websites, through employment centres, and in lists such as those here and here.

Make internship work for your organization

“Like most nonprofits, we’re always focused on the needs of our community, and often it’s challenging to be able to tackle strategic priority projects,” says Boyer. “It was a godsend for us to have these students come in.”

David Lightheart, Senior Project Manager IT Department of the MS Society of Canada, agrees. “Without the students, we would have had to hire a fulltime employee.” He adds, “The quality of employees you get from a co-op program is well worth the money. Every single student I’ve hired has been incredibly talented, hardworking and intelligent.”

In fact, 80% of employers surveyed for Universities Canada said that co-op and internship students are a source of new talent and potential future employees. At the same time, the ability to maximize that talent in a tight timeframe — many internships last just four months — is vital for employers.

Here are some strategies for employers:

1. Be clear about what you want (and start early). “Every charity has a list of dream to-do’s they would do if they had more staff, time or money. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of key projects we thought would be a good fit for students,” says Boyer. “As soon as we found out about our benefactor, our leadership team met to discuss how best to utilize the interns.” To be sure your organization hires well, start recruiting early — as early as February for a summer hire — and talking with local university career centres as a good place to start. Joanne Wiens, Executive Director, Volunteer Comox Valley, who has helped place student interns with nonprofit organizations, reminds employers that vetting interns is necessary. “I’ve seen employers assume all they need is a warm body to do a project, and they end up with someone who wasn’t a good fit for their needs.”

2. Think project. Often the best way to maximize an intern is to come up with a primary project for them to work on during their term. Big Brothers Big Sisters’ interns took on a variety of projects from rural research to enhancing IT standards to developing materials for a volunteer recruitment campaign. Patterson advises that interns and co-op students can take on the bulk of the work in advance of an event, allowing fulltime staff to remain on their usual tasks.

3. Onboard your interns and supervise them well. From the interviewing process through to the exit interview, treat your intern or summer student the same way you would treat any other employee. The MS Society overlaps their co-op students so that an outgoing student can help a new intern learn the ropes. Boyer uggests, “We found it helpful to come up with clear deliverables and templates.” Similarly, supervise interns as you would other staff, although you may check in with them more often. Lightheart says, “I’m happy to train them for a week or two, knowing that after that, they will contribute to the team.”

4. Embrace their fresh perspective. Many students arrive knowing little about the organization and its work, but this fresh perspective offers opportunities. “We live and breathe our work every day, and don’t always think about it differently,” says Boyer. “Our co-ops came in with fascinating and innovative ideas and a whole array of skills. The projects they handed in were more than we ever dreamed of and made a tremendous impact on our organization.” True to the stereotype, interns often offer fresh technological skills to a nonprofit organization. Lightheart says, “The students we hire are very knowledgeable about the latest technology but they also come in without preconceived notions about how things should be done.”

5. Think long term and broadly about their value. Beyond the value of an intern or co-op student’s contribution during their term, says Patterson, think of their long-term value and influence. “A student who has had an excellent experience can donate time as a volunteer or raising awareness on campus. Managers can invite students to get involved in the larger organization or another chapter of the organization in their home city.” He adds, “If you want to be an ongoing employer, the best form of advertising is a previously hired student.”

6. Challenge knowledge loss. Just as institutional knowledge can be lost when staff leave, so the quick turnaround of interns runs the risk of losing knowledge. The MS Society of Canada works against this by having co-op students prepare documentation for their successors on everything from the washroom pass code to comments on code they have written. Patterson suggests having students rewrite their job description at the end of their term to refine it for future interns.

7. Be aware of the downside. “The first time you hire a student,” says Patterson, “there can be some bumps along the way as you figure out supervision and fit, but by the second or third hire, it usually runs smoothly.” Boyer cautions that employers need to be aware that it takes effort to find projects for interns, to onboard and supervise them well. Occasionally, too, Patterson admits, “there are students who don’t work out”, although he adds that educational institutions support co-op students and their hiring organizations with site visits, coaching and even replacing students when occasionally necessary.

8. Understand how interns fit within your mission. “As an organization, we believe in the power of mentoring,” says Boyer, “so we embraced the idea that mentoring interns was another way we could achieve our mission.”

Making a placement meaningful for your student

Here are ways to make an internship meaningful for the student:

1. Be clear about the job. “The more the student knows up front,” says Patterson, “the less likely tension will be created later.” Students like to know who they are reporting to, how they report, what expectations there are, what skills they need, what specific duties are required, whether overtime is expected, whether a vehicle is required, etc.

2. Pay them at least a living wage. Enough said.

3. Offer support. Supervision should have a mentorship quality to it as well as making sure tasks are being accomplished.

4. Tailor projects to their skills and interests. Boyer says, “We’ve found success in giving students freedom to take ownership of their own projects. They have enjoyed the freedom and flexibility this involves, as well as seeing the impact of their work, something that is not always possible in the for-profit sector.” In addition to their assigned work projects, Lightheart says, “I like to let students identify and work on a personal project during their term.” These projects help students develop their interests and allows them to gain skills they can add to their resumes.

5. Offer insider knowledge. An internship is an educational placement, so organizations should look for ways to educate their interns about how their organization is run, how it fits within the larger organization, the sector, and the geographical area. Patterson suggests inviting students to meetings with staff, clients and the larger sector to allow them insight as well as networking opportunities. He also encourages including students in any professional development opportunities. Wiens adds, “Expose interns to the structure of the organization, so they understand how funding and governance work, how to do marketing and public relations. This helps them tweak their skills and understand the bigger picture.” Lightheart says, “In a larger organization like a bank or a consultancy, a student may have a narrow focus, but in a smaller nonprofit, we can give them the chance to wear so many hats, get exposed to different types of work, and work on all the aspects of a project.”

6. Don’t put Baby in the corner. Integrate interns within the whole organization and culture, looking for opportunities to make the experience enjoyable for them — and for everyone.

Working at a nonprofit can be eye-opening for many students, says Boyer, many of whom come to the nonprofit sector never having been exposed to it before. Nonprofit organizations who hire interns may have the privilege and responsibility of serving as the face of the sector, playing a pivotal role in changing the course of the interns’ future careers and the sector itself.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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