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By May 4, 2016No Comments

By Brigid O’Leary

It’s internship season! Many students and organizations are preparing for a summer of new faces, places and experiences. However, any season can be internship season. Correctly done, an internship should be a mutually-beneficial relationship, with both parties gaining from the experience, no matter what time of year.

Youth of the Nation

“We are a smaller organization as far as the number of staff but we have big ambitions for the number of programs, collaborations, and off-site events we get involved with in the community. Having interns helps us execute, or get closer to participating in all the activities in the community that we want to, especially as far as outreach is concerned.” – Carrie Sullivan, CUESA

Generally, organizations can use the extra help internships provide to accomplish more than they would otherwise.

“As with any nonprofit, we probably don’t have as many people on staff as we should have on hand for any production. Having a corps of enthusiastic interns gets a lot of day-to-day things done,” said Ed Kirchdoerffer, general manager of the Mayo Performing Arts Center a 501(c)(3) performing arts organization in Morristown, NJ. “It also empowers [staffers] to talk about what they do in their daily jobs and it helps keep them enthused, talking about what they do with young adults who are interested in working in that area.”

It’s a sentiment to which Carrie Sullivan, culinary programs manager with San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) can relate.

“We are a smaller organization as far as the number of staff but we have big ambitions for the number of programs, collaborations, and off-site events we get involved with in the community. Having interns helps us execute, or get closer to participating in all the activities in the community that we want to, especially as far as outreach is concerned,” said Sullivan. CUESA is a 501(c)(3) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs, so involving the community is imperative, as it is to Spark-Y, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization providing sustainable education for youth through local Twin Cities high schools and partner organizations.

Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture

Photo Credit: Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture

“Our mission is to empower youth and [internships] help us achieve that mission,” said Zachary Robinson, executive director of Spark-Y. “It also helps us and the community, we’re doing projects such as building aquaponic farming systems, community gardens, and it helps the community as well because they’re performing projects that benefit community partners. Finally, it gives our high school program youth a summer outlet or job.”

While additional bodies can be helpful for many physical aspects of what an organization offers, interns can reward organizations that take a chance on them in other ways as well.

“Interns bring new ideas and can provide solutions to select areas of problem solving. They are innovative and, in many cases, are more skillful in the use of technology in a variety of key areas, e.g. social media,” Cheryl Kravitz, Public Support and Media contact of Africare, explained in an email interview.

Africare, which works to improve the quality of life of the people in Africa, addressing African development and policy issues by working in partnership with African people to build sustainable, healthy and productive communities, isn’t the only organization that sees the value in knowledge that the interns might bring to the organization.

“Hopefully we can learn from them, too. It’s an age group we’re always wanting to learn from; we want to pick their brains – how do they get information? What are they interested in? It’s good to get an idea of what they’re interested in,” Kirchdoerffer said, explaining that interns often come in with a grasp of newer technology and social awareness that staffers who have been away from school longer might not.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

“A lot of students come in wanting to get an internship with this company or that company. We talk a lot about transferable skills. The experience you get at a nonprofit gives you more exposure and transferable skills.” – Maryam Brown, Randolph College.

While hiring interns provides additional short-term staff for an organization, the person filling that role benefits from the often hands-on work as well.

“A lot of students come in wanting to get an internship with this company or that company. We talk a lot about transferable skills. The experience you get at a nonprofit gives you more exposure and transferable skills,” said Maryam Brown, assistant director of career development/internship coordinator at Randolph College, a private, liberal arts and sciences institution located in Lynchburg, Virginia. “I stand by the experience a nonprofit can offer, a higher learning experience. When you have a 3-person organization, the CEO is also providing service and doing data entry. When a student comes into that circumstances, they get a wider range of experience.”

It’s those experiences that Africare, headquartered in Washington D.C., can offer its interns.

“Our staff has the satisfaction of having afforded a young person real world exposure to issues about which they are passionate and the workplace realities that impact one’s ability to affect change,” Kravitz said before sharing a revealing anecdote that elaborated on the kind of on-the-job learning one Africare intern received. “A member of our management staff has stated, ‘As an Africare intern, I was sent out to Dakar and at 22 years old, with no previous development experience, overnight became the Country Manager’s right hand because the office was so short staffed. It was a great experience and I really felt I made an important contribution.’”

That’s the kind of experience Brown encourages students to seek and though it could be achieved at a private-sector, for-profit business, it might be a bit of a stretch to say that the intern in question received training “similar to [what] would be given in an educational environment,” which is one of the requirements for an unpaid internship, according to the federal government.


Photo Credit: Spark-Y

“One of the main differences is that nonprofits are protected by the U.S. Department of Labor in offering unpaid internships. The Department of Labor has rules to protect students and make sure they are getting paid internships, and they have certain stipulations to make sure they’re getting an education. Nonprofits have a lot more leeway in the way they can structure their internships and be creative with that because they’re exempt from the payment situation,” said Brown.

A 2014 post to the U.S. Department of Labor blog points out that the Department of Labor “Wage and Hour Division recognizes an exception to the employment relationship for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to nonprofit organizations.”

By this definition, the concept of an internship is, fundamentally, a volunteer position, but to CUESA’s Sullivan, it’s more than that.

“It’s different from a volunteer position; you’re making a commitment to them, a time commitment for the time you spend training and you need a commitment from them,” she said, adding that interns often bring with them enthusiasm from a different source. “Interns are different from volunteers because they give us a specific commitment for a period of time or for a specific project, or help with planning an event. Most of them are motivated – most have been here to get some sort of credit with a school because a lot of them are students.”

Internships are often arranged through a school and, keeping with the Department of Labor rules about the educational aspect of an internship, many are designed so that there is educational accountability.

And while the Department of Labor doesn’t require nonprofit organizations to pay their interns, some are able to offer payment for select internships. A paid internship is subject to the same rules laid out in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as any other paid employment with regard to compensation – receiving “minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek” but not necessarily vacation, holiday, severance or sick pay.

“Traditionally, our internships were unpaid, though we are starting to have some paid internship positions, and we have some naturally talented people who rise during the internship and we can see that and say ‘You’re really good, come interview to work for us” Robinson said, touching on another stipulation for an unpaid intern: there can be no promise of a job at the end of the internship.

Internships are often viewed as a way for someone to get their foot in the door and they can lead to full-time work with a company or organization, but an intern who isn’t getting paid can’t be led to believe that there will be definitively a paying job waiting at the end of the assignment.

With nonprofits, there just may not be room for another staff member, but as Kirchdoerffer points out, an impressive intern can earn a recommendation for employment at a similar place of employment.

“We’ve had some interns graduate on to full time opportunities here. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s an industry where everyone knows each other,” he said. “If it’s someone we really like but we can’t accommodate them when they graduate, we can turn to others we know in the industry and say ‘we really like this person.’ It encourages the interns to show us their best work, so we can tell others what good workers they are, or how smart they are or that they’re eager to try anything.”

Takin’ Care of Business

“For many this is their first experience in an office environment, and it is difficult for them to make the transition from a classroom to an office. There is a fine line between an intern taking initiative with a project, or completing something without asking whether the plan is even viable for the organization.” – Cheryl Kravitz, Africare.

Eagerness and a willingness to try anything can be an admirable trait. It can also be a challenge for the organizations trying to tap the energy interns bring in while also keeping them on task to the needs of the organization.

“For many this is their first experience in an office environment, and it is difficult for them to make the transition from a classroom to an office. There is a fine line between an intern taking initiative with a project, or completing something without asking whether the plan is even viable for the organization,” said Kravitz.

Sullivan has faced similar challenges at CUESA.

“Obviously, bringing them up to speed to understanding our organization and the breadth of what we do is the initial challenge, if they’re not familiar with our organization. We can say ‘no’ to someone who is a bad fit, but we try not to because we want to encourage people who support us, so the challenge is determining their skill level, their capabilities, their interest, their ability to do what we need them to do and to adjust expectations from them and from us; sometimes they come in wanting to do something we don’t think they’re capable of or we’re not interested in,” she explained.

Capability can be an important factor, particularly if someone interested in an internship has more interest than experience in the field. That’s a more common challenge for Robinson and his staff at Spark-Y, which hosts a 9-week sustainable entrepreneurial ‘camp’ during the summer with 30-40 youth ranging from 14 to 24. Not only do they need the staff capacity to deal with that many interns – not an easy feat – but they must also address the range of diverse individuals and meeting different levels of educational needs.

“How do you meet the needs of a 14-year old versus a 24-year old? That’s a 10-year age range and we work with both. They’re both still considered ‘youth’ for our internship program. What’s reasonable to ask of a 14-year-old is not reasonable for a 24-year-old with regards for professionalism or responsibility. It’s a broad challenge but an exciting one,” said Robinson. “I would think that for [another] organization, a bigger challenge would be training someone who doesn’t have a specific skill set that you need in your organization. We don’t see that much, because that’s our goal – the whole reason we do internships is for training and empowerment and from a traditional company standpoint, an internship might be cheaper labor for tasks but may be more challenging to have to spend extra time training interns. Those are typical challenges, but we find joy and fulfillment of our mission in those.”

Ambitions and skill sets aside, employing interns creates more mundane challenges, too.


Photo Credit: LIS

Kirchdoerffer explained that “[The challenge] is keeping them occupied. They want to do things and sometimes you’re spending a portion of your day trying to create jobs for them.”

The organization employs up to 20 interns during the summer and 3-5 interns during the school year. They’ve been doing it long enough that they’ve created a system that works for them.

“We’ve learned to structure specific goals that interns can help us with, such as grassroots marketing, making sure our materials are out there where we need them to be. Now it’s kind of turnkey when they show up we have things for them to do. Now we’ve tried to find specific things for them to get plugged into what we’re doing right away,” Kirchdoerffer said. “It’s better if you have specific tasks and duties that fit into the strategic goals you need to accomplish for your organization. When you’re coming up with busy work, the intern doesn’t benefit and the organization doesn’t benefit from the experience.”

It’s the same thought the team at CUESA has.

“There’s also a matter of supervision,” said Sullivan. “When you’re in an office with a limited number of people, everyone tries to keep their head down and get their work done but when you have someone to supervise, you have to be organized to have something for them to do that is meaningful for them as well as for the organization.”

Assignments that provide a chance for interns to flex their skills – newly acquired or not – and benefit the organization and the right balance of supervision doesn’t mean everything will always run smoothly. With the limited time that an intern is working with an organization, mistakes they make might not be discovered until their term is over and they’ve returned to school or moved on to other jobs elsewhere.

Kirchdoerffer shared a story of one such incident: an intern had completed a database of information Mayo Performing Arts Center needed but neglected to include one key component – the names of the organizations. The error wasn’t discovered until the internship had been completed the intern was back at school.

It may feel like one step forward, two steps back for those who have to remedy the situation, but it’s the reality of internships and is one of the qualifications of an unpaid internship. Per the Department of Labor’s test for unpaid interns, the middle criteria is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” Interns have to be allowed to make mistakes, even if it causes more work for the organization’s staff to correct them.

Until I Find You Again

Interns are only human and usually relatively young, though every organization is different and sets its own policy for with which age groups they are willing to work – and how to attract those they want.

“Africare is fortunate in that the work we do is well-known and widely-respected in the development community. Historically and culturally, Africare has attracted highly talented individuals early in their career,” Kravitz said. “The Africare Internship Program is a 10 to 12 week program at Africare House in Washington, D.C. from June – August. The program is open to full-time or part-time undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students depending upon the opening.”

She went on to explain that all of Africare positions are unpaid with a flexible schedule of up to 40 hours per week, and academic credit is available but they do require applicants to have excellent writing, research and Microsoft Office skills, and they face a vetting process that is similar to the organization’s hiring process.

Photo Credit: Randolph College

Photo Credit: Randolph College

Interested parties vying for an internship spot with the Mayo Performing Arts Center also face a professional interview.

“They have to come in for an interview, talk to our intern coordinator who tells them what’s expected out of them, so both sides get to see if this person is going to contribute to the organization and if they’re comfortable working here,” Kirchdoerffer said, noting that while they do have avenues to help spread the word when they have an internship position open, they also have people coming to them with inquires. “We get a lot of requests. We put it out at area schools. We don’t advertise on Facebook or in papers or anything like that. It’s mostly through our contacts with local high schools and colleges and they approach us as well – it’s about 50/50.”

The same goes for Spark-Y.

“This is one of our programs – an internship as a professional experience. We’re pretty local still. People are starting to hearing about us, from media attention, and they’re coming to us. We’re running programs at local high schools and colleges and every time we run programs, youth are finding out ‘there’s this sustainable program and they’re offering internships,’ and then they reach out to us,” explained Robinson. “We just went live with our intern application last week and we’ve been posting on job boards. We already have 30 or 40 applications submitted that way. We post on university listservs, the MN Urban Agriculture Farmers listserv, things that make sense for us.”

Robinson continued, describing that by posting on all local university job boards, the organization’s website and e-newsletter, they can get the word out and let perspective interns answer an online questionnaire resume that goes to a database and generates an email. When the staff at Spark-Y gets the email, they contact the potential intern to schedule an interview.

“It’s 20 minutes to half an hour of them sharing desires, hopes, and we share needed qualifications for internship. We go with about 30 interns – we had 30 last year, this year we might go with 35 – 40. It’s basically a standard job interview process. Once we got a structure up and running for that process, it’s fairly easy to manage. It will be our sixth year doing this and it’s the easiest year to get it all done. If you’re just launching an internship, make sure whoever is running it takes good notes and sets up Standard Operating Procedures, notes about ‘I posted on this board, and this is how you do that’ — it creates structure for future use,” he said.

The interview and vetting process can be flexible, though, and establishing a relationship with schools and other organizations that might facilitate internships can make a difference.

“We have sometimes posted things on our website and we do work with a number of schools – high schools and colleges – on a regular basis. On the culinary side we work with IACP in the summer time. Sometimes [we get interns] from relationships we’ve had for a time but we do advertise if we need something outside the traditional school year. We’ve also advertised with Good Food Jobs in the past,” explained Sullivan when asked about her vetting process. “It varies for me from one source to another. If I’m taking on an intern from somewhere like the San Francisco Cooking School or another school we work with regularly, I might just meet the person to see if they will fit personality-wise, because I know their screening process. If it’s someone who applied through the website, I’d send them information, ask them to send me information, ask for a writing sample and ask for reference, and treat it more like a traditional hire situation. It is probably similar for other departments at CUESA – the vetting depends on how the intern was referred to us.”

In turn, schools can help students find the right place for them to apply for internships, as well as teaching them to vet organizations (and for-profit companies) themselves.

“We work really closely with the students to help them learn to analyze opportunities they come across. We do have a database [of] employer/partner opportunities, people we’re familiar with and [we] will promote those openings. I work with students to identify their interests and how to sleuth out companies and organizations that they’re interested in, and [how to] reach out, be proactive,” said Brown, who herself worked for nonprofit organizations before taking the job at Randolph College. “Part of that involves critical reading of websites, looking [the organization] up with the BBB and making sure what they’re going for is legit.”

Proximity to a college should not curtail an organization’s desire or ability to hire interns, though. Brown and the team at the Randolph College Career Development Center also encourage the students to spread their wings.

“I always tell students there are internships anywhere in the world you if want them—in Lynchburg, in your city, in someone else’s city. During the school year, obviously, students stay in Lynchburg so a lot of our internships are local. In the summer, I would say three-quarters of students are doing internships in their hometown. New this year, Randolph College is the recipient of a grant that allows for a student to take an unpaid or low-paid internship in their field anywhere other than home. It allows students to chase those career-relative internships and we’ve seen uptick in students wanting to do internships not in Lynchburg and not in their hometown,” she said.

Nonprofit of all sizes have something to offer, and it doesn’t always have to be the obvious. For Kirchdoerffer, there are plenty of different facets to running a performing arts center.

“We have interns in all departments; if someone is interested in marketing or PR, it would be different from someone interested in stage management or production. There are always opportunities in different departments,” he said.

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

An organization doesn’t have to have multiple “departments” to be able to offer a fulfilling internship experience. The primary factor is preparation for the added responsibility and ensuring a good fit with the intern(s) hired.

“Careful matching of skills and interest to discreet tasks achievable within the internship timeframe is key. Managing interns appropriately will lead to the best experiences on all sides and the best productivity. Thinking this through and good planning particularly behooves thinly staffed NGOs. They may need the most help and have the least bandwidth to manage interns appropriately,” said Kravitz. “Interns are with you for a short time and need to be adequately on boarded and supported to have maximum impact. This requires thoughtful structuring of the task to be accomplished and appropriate support and management. Intern experiences can also fail, and the harm in this is not the failure itself; it is in the intern and the organization not learning from a failure and it being used to make new intern experiences better. There is a high level of energy and innovation interns can bring to an organization if the fit is good and they are managed to get the maximum out of the internship both for the intern and the organization.”

In that respect, just because an organization doesn’t have a formal internship program doesn’t preclude it from being a good fit for someone who wants to work in that field, nor does it mean they have to turn down a request for consideration of an internship.

“We tell them 80 percent of jobs people hold currently are never advertised, they come about in proactive search. So they need to look to that hidden job market,” said Brown of the students she advises. “I think that a well-crafted internship is going to be mutually beneficial. When I speak to employers taking on interns for the first time. I spend a lot of time looking at what they can gain by having a student on board and what they can teach the student. I’m very cognizant that taking an internship on, especially for a small staff, creates a lot of work – they have to be taught everything – but it can be a very beneficial arrangement and it really pays off to take the time to sit down and say ‘what do we want an intern to bring to us?’”

She goes on to say that concrete knowledge such as having taken a statistics course or being familiar with social media are good to outline but in describing what an organization wants from an intern no one should be tied to a specific skill set; the intangibles of a person’s character – cheerful attitude, energy, enthusiasm – can help make sure that a potential intern is the right fit for the job.

In working to set up new internships, Brown also asks employers to add a section to that job description to tell the students what they’ll walk away having learned: how to network with the business community in a particular town or within an industry, or having gained skills in a particular software, for example.

She’s not the only one interviewed for this article who recommended it.

“From my perspective, it’s good to have a job description for interns. It’s good to have a specific plan for what you expect from them and what they can expect from you,” said Sullivan. “Having interns is a fantastic opportunity to connect with people, especially people who are young and enthusiastic and want to do what you are doing. They usually are coming to you because they’ve heard of you. It’s great to tap into that energy and enthusiasm, especially when they’re willing to make that commitment, time wise.”

Writing a job description for an internship position requires an organization to seriously consider what kind of help they need and how a student might fit into the system. It may sound daunting but it’s meant to make everything, from hiring to the execution of the internship, easier in the long run.

“It breaks this very theoretical context into tangible things so we know who we’re looking for, and what we’re both going to get out of it,” explained Brown, who also wants nonprofits not to under estimate what they have to provide or offer to an intern and what they can gain from having a student come on board in that capacity. “I’ve seen it be a daunting prospect for an employer partner. I’ve seen them say ‘we’re only 3-4 people, no one would want to come here.’ Student exposure to a range of responsibilities and tasks is really important. A lot of nonprofit companies can’t do as well.”

At the very least, taking on an internship can give a student a taste of the real world if he or she has to go through an interview process or takes a chance on a highly-competitive program to which they might not be accepted.

“Treat them like any other hire. Go through that process. Vet them,” recommends Kirchdoerffer. “It’s good experience for the interns as well to realize that you can’t just show up in ratty jeans and a t-shirt – and it gives you an idea of who you’re working with and what they can do for your organization.”

Even if it’s not written, having a clear idea for hiring an intern can only help a nonprofit get the most out of the internship.

“I think that if they have the idea that it’s free or cheap labor, toward their overall organization goals, and that’s solely it – they should carefully consider to treat the process like another program or division of your organization so you can get those end results,” Robinson advised.

However, if that is the end result it may not fit the requirements for an unpaid internship. While 501(c)(3) nonprofits may be exempt from the FLSA Internship requirements, the Department of Labor Fact Sheet No. 71 spells out specifically what is required of a private-sector company for an internship to qualify as an unpaid internship and it wouldn’t hurt any organization to be familiar with the criteria.

“You’ll have to put in effort to get it going but they’re usually with youth who have creativity, and passion — especially if you can align that passion with what your organization does. Keep those things in mind and allow for investment into the results you’re looking for. And keep in mind the non-direct benefits of having an internship: intergenerational mentoring, passion, creativity, innovation etc. If you’re doing an internship, it can be a great mechanism for testing or vetting potential future staff as well,” Robinson added.

The importance of the mentoring aspect of internships should not be underestimated.

“We also have interns shadow our senior staffers as well so they can see what’s involved in their positions. We don’t want our interns to have the typical internship experience, filing, copying, and doing all the grunt work – we want it to be more challenging, to help them understand what kind of career they want to have,” said Kirchdoerffer.

That last point is, essentially, the point of an internship and it is wise for anyone interested in hiring, or actively employing, interns to remember: internships can be instrumental in a person’s decision about their future career.

“Of course, from an organization’s perspective, it is tempting to accept all the extra help you can get and throwing it at a project. Interns are with you for a short time. A current applicant wrote that she needs experience to learn what she wants to do — AND what she doesn’t want to do,” said Kravitz. “There is a certain level of responsibility that NGOs take on with such young workers beyond accepting the help and making good on the job description and we must be willing to fulfill it.”

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