Interns: The "Acceptable" Volunteers?

By Susan J. Ellis

Comments heard during last month’s International Conference on Volunteer Administration, and also recently posted to several listservs, show that a cyclically-recurring question is once again heating up: Are “interns” the same as or different from “volunteers”?

What makes the current discussion critical to me, however, is the clear sense that organizations and individuals vastly prefer what they think of as interns to what they consider as volunteers. We all know the negative stereotypes about volunteers. But use the label of “interns” and the perceptions change to:

  • eager learners (though inexperienced or young), generally exploring a possible career
  • able to give an intensive set of hours for at least a few months
  • serious about their commitment and supported by a third party, such as a university faculty member
  • a professional responsibility to guide and mentor

Of course, the term intern brings its own confusion and can imply many things to different people. Of main interest to me in this Hot Topic is the vast number of students and recent graduates who seek an unpaid internship (with or without academic credit) in the same organizations that already involve volunteers. I am concerned because all too often interns are elevated above mere volunteers unjustifiably and/or the “internship program” is separated administratively from the volunteer resources office, to the detriment of both groups.

More Alike than Different

The differences between interns and other volunteers relate mainly to what assignments may be given to each and which staff members should supervise them.

It’s fine to distinguish specific challenging volunteer assignments that need to be filled by qualified people with more-than-average hours available per week. But why not make these available to anyone willing and able to meet the requirements – not just students? Think about the illogic of assuming that a student, often quite inexperienced, can fulfill an intensive role just because s/he is a student, while an adult “volunteer” who may be truly qualified is relegated to less consequential tasks simply because of being placed into a different category of worker.

Further, the skill necessary to create a meaningful “internship” is exactly the same task analysis that ought to be brought to any work designed for volunteers. It might even elicit more creativity if staff were asked to develop volunteer roles that allowed the doer to grow and learn – at any age and for any reason.

My point is that we can make all volunteering much more like the positive image of internships, but avoid a false dichotomy. A student seeking an internship (their term, which is fine) can be offered a choice of the two to three intensive assignments available. Without the time necessary, that student would have to consider one of the other ten less-intensive assignments, just as any other volunteer applicant.

If this is confusing, drop both terms! Become the “Community Resources Office” and put anyone to work who doesn’t go on the payroll. Who should coordinate all of these people is an administrative issue only. Here are some ways that unpaid interns and volunteers are totally alike and therefore ought to be treated as a single category of human resources:

  • Although neither goes on the payroll, formal records need to be kept for both.
  • Both require orientation to the agency and probably special training. Some interns may be at an educational level that allows the expectation of professional skills, but that is also true of some volunteers.
  • Regardless of why individuals may start in service, they are likely to continue in service beyond their original commitment.
  • Both deserve recognition and appreciation.

Supervision is the other possible area of difference. Many university programs require that a student intern work under the direction of someone in the profession for which the student is training (the nurse and teacher model). That’s why some staff members are positive about interns; they can now pass on the support given to them when they were students. This special relationship is important and any students who fall into this professionals-in-training group ought to be assigned to the best supervisor accordingly. But, again, conceptually this is no different from finding the best supervisor to match any volunteer’s needs.

Maybe it’s time to examine our own reactions to the words volunteer and intern. Both are descriptors, not job titles. Neither really tells us what the person is actually doing, nor necessarily the skills the person brings. But if one connotes nice helper to you and the other connotes serious learner, ask yourself why both can’t be both. Then ask yourself whether the distinction has been made in your agency mainly to professionalize internships…and why that wouldn’t be positive as an approach to all volunteered assistance.

What do you think?

Susan jumps in to comment about responses (16 November)

I love the responses this month because the diversity of opinion really shows why this is a "hot topic."  Thanks to all who are posting.  Let me reiterate that I agree that the intensity of schedule, work assignments, possible personal needs, and supervision plans for student interns DO require special attention.  The questions here are:  Why can't we approach all volunteer positions with the same care and respect as we seem to be able to do when we call them "internships"?  What are the implications – to the individual and to the agency – of separating these two forms of service in various ways?  Am I right in my observation that agencies welcome "interns" (if they do) but have reservations about "volunteers"?

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