Internships done right: A winning approach for both nonprofits and students

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While internships have had a lot of bad press in recent years (with even the nonprofit sector being accused of exploitative labour practices), internships done right can actually provide a win-win solution for both the intern and their nonprofit employer. CharityVillage talked with both interns and employers to learn how they are making it work.

Why internships?

Students and people new to the nonprofit sector are drawn to internships as a means of gaining the often elusive and always valuable work experience that can translate into permanent positions. According to the Government of Canada's Youth Services website, an internship “enables the intern to gain valuable work experience and on-the-job training, while providing the employer with an enthusiastic worker.”

Human resources professional Gayle Hadfield has this to say: “Fundamentally internships help overcome the barrier to employment. It is tough for young workers to get into the nonprofit sector without experience. Employers don’t want to be the ones to help an employee make the transition between studying and employment.” In Hadfield’s experience, interns hope the internship will potentially lead to a job at the organization, or to work experience and references that will strengthen their candidacy elsewhere.

Internships also offer significant benefits to the hiring organization. Hadfield says organizations benefit most when they hire an intern to take on a specific project that wouldn’t otherwise get completed, or when the intern has specific knowledge the organization needs. She notes that hiring interns also benefits the organization and the sector in the long run, particularly with the looming mass boomer retirement.

NOTE: Recent shifts in legislation or interpretation of labour laws in many provinces have addressed various concerns about internships. Increasingly, interns are paid at least minimum wage in exchange for their work. Click here for a summary of provincial employment standard laws for interns.

How do organizations make internships work?

Evidence Network is a fairly young nonprofit created to act as a bridge between mainstream media and academics to make sure evidence from controversial health policy topics gets accurate media coverage. Each year, they hire an intern for a semester.

“We’ve had nothing but good experiences with interns,” says Kathleen O’Grady, Evidence Network’s managing editor. “We’re shocked by high quality of candidates. We pay – this could make a difference – and we have a clear set of responsibilities. We give them big projects and they are involved at all levels. We make sure they interact with a number of our expert advisors in health policy so they can learn from multiple individuals.”

O’Grady notes that staff also learn from the interns. Many interns bring new tools that staff might not be familiar with. The Evidence Network’s most recent intern taught staff the importance and usefulness of infographics in knowledge translation.

In addition to setting out responsibilities, lines of reporting and deliverables, Evidence Network also makes sure there is room for the interns to integrate their interests into their work. “In this day and age, it’s a struggle to get a good position specifically in health journalism – interns hope to use their time with us as a way to earn money and work on their skills,” says O’Grady. “They also get to work directly on media products, which enhances their skills.”

O’Grady also notes that she looks at the internship and volunteer positions of potential employees. “It shows an ability to network and gives breadth and depth to a candidate.”

How do organizations successfully move to working with interns?

Welcome Home Refugee Housing Community in Kitchener, ON, provides a home for refugees during their first year in Canada. Welcome Home used to hire unpaid volunteers but moved to a paid internship model several years ago. They hire at least one male and female intern each year who live with the refugees, among other responsibilities. The shift to this type of paid model was undertaken in part to strengthen accountability and also in response to the Employment Standards Act. As a small nonprofit (with only four paid staff, plus interns), starting to pay interns meant a significant reworking of Welcome Home’s budget and a lot of paperwork to make the change happen but Director Sharon Schmidt says that paying interns, many of whom have significant student debt, is more just. “I couldn’t have felt good if we hadn’t changed to a paid internship. The interns are worth it.”

Schmidt notes she has been able to pick and choose among a variety of well-qualified applicants. While supervising interns takes time and energy, the interns Schmidt has hired bring skills, independence and capacity to the organization. When Schmidt first hired interns, she says, she wasn’t as clear about what she needed and got a number of unsuitable job applicants. Continuing to fine tune job descriptions and carefully targeting where to look for interns has resulted in a pool of strong candidates.

Welcome Home sees internship as a next step of preparation where the organization contributes to an intern’s capacity and ability to get a job. Schmidt and other staff mentor interns accordingly, considering what interns want to work on and to explore their interests and skills. Schmidt offers tips for making internships successful:

  • Give them real work. “When one of our current interns started, we sat down with her and her smile got broader as we told her what we hoped she would do.” Welcome Home’s interns are working on a project to help refugees develop Canadian resumes. While Schmidt is ultimately accountable, the interns lead the development and implementation of this project.
  • Expect challenges. “If someone is coming straight out of school, they may have only known student life,” says Schmidt. “This may even be their first job. Be prepared for a transition process.”
  • See interns as an investment. Don't hire an intern without having a commitment to mentoring and training them. Schmidt says the joy of working with interns is knowing that “regardless of what they do in the future, they will have refugees, the cause our organization supports, in the backs of their minds.”
  • Make space for interns’ parents. “This isn’t about enabling helicopter parents,” says Schmidt. “You need to grow up before you work here. But if parents are behind an internship — even if they were hoping their child would get a better paying job — it often will go better.”

What makes the experience work for the intern?

After studying fundraising at Humber College and before graduation, Jen Langdon successfully secured a one-year internship position as an intern at the University of Guelph’s department of Alumni Affairs and Development. She considers the experience invaluable and one that has shaped her career.

“An internship is a necessary part of education,” says Langdon, who notes that her school program taught technical skills while the internship provided an opportunity to interact with people and to use the skills she had learned. Together with the other interns, Langdon worked on a variety of projects, many of which recur each year.

The interns had regular one-on-one meetings with their supervisor to “identify competencies we needed to work on as well as strengths.” Early on, each intern and their supervisor discussed areas of interest and skills. This shaped the role Langdon was involved in within the department. “I was able to be vocal about the types of projects I wanted to work on and the skills I wanted to develop.” She says that the mentorship she received helped her to broaden her existing knowledge and also to understand how an office works. Working in a shared office space, she learned her preference for working in solitude as well as how to be adaptable, which was a valuable asset as she pursued a permanent position.

Langdon appreciated that her colleagues made sure that the projects she worked on benefited her learning goals, and that she was supervised and given timely feedback. On the flip side, some of Langdon’s colleagues didn’t have formal training in fundraising and were curious about her education. Donors and prospects were also interested in her internship and this helped her be successful in raising funds.

In her role as intern, Langdon’s salary was competitive with a starting salary. She also qualified for most benefits.

While Langdon notes that “every internship program is going to be different because every charity is different,” she also has tips for interns:

  • Soak up as much knowledge as you can. Invite colleagues for coffee, get to know people in your immediate circle and the wider community, and spend personal time reading books and resources in your field.
  • Find peers you can rely on—but don’t rely on them too much. Don’t get in habit of not seeking out your own answers.
  • Never stop job-hunting. “Even though I was very happy where I was, I never stopped looking at CharityVillage and networking.”
  • Take advantage of the fact that this may be the one time in your career when you can be a fly on the wall in meetings: observe and learn without always being expected to contribute.

Langdon was not bound to stay in her internship role if a permanent opportunity arose; she ended her contract after 11 months when she was offered the position as resource development officer at the United Way, Cambridge-North Dumfries.

In conclusion

Employing an intern is not terribly different from hiring any new employee. Hadfield advises making sure both the employer and intern are clear on what the opportunity will provide and how it will be structured. Interns need feedback and recognition, flexibility and appreciation – but also a chance to work within the reality of the workplace.

“Internships provide an opportunity to train individuals who will go on in the field and give them the tools and skills your organization knows are needed,” says O’Grady. “It’s reciprocal too – hiring interns allows organizations to stay current and to also gain skills and tools.”

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

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