Internships

There are many kinds of internships, both paid and unpaid. The term is most often applied to a student working for a period in a setting relevant to a possible future career, but the internship can also be a bridge into a career for recent graduates or job changers.  

Identifying Who Is and Is Not a “Volunteer”, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
Interns: The "Acceptable" Volunteers?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2004
Keeping an Eye on Things in the Year Ahead, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2005
Let’s Dive In(ternships), Christine Smith, Nonprofit Risk eNews, 2017

Firsthand account of the internship experience, using swimming metaphors.

Volunteering and Employability: Cause or Effect?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
When a Volunteer Transforms into an Employee, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2001
Compiled and Edited by Michael True of Messiah College and produced by the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania. Practical and welcoming guide by a college internship director to help nonprofits and businesses establish effective internships for students. Nice checklists. , 2004, pp. 26
Volunteers below the Radar
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Are you keeping track of all the volunteer support your organization receives? Are you sure? In the course of a year, it is common for agencies to benefit from the donated services of a wide range of people, yet only those formally designated as "volunteers" are reflected in the reports of the volunteer program. Who doesn't get counted? People who come to the agency in a roundabout way, bypassing the procedures of the volunteer services office - flying in "under the radar," so to speak. Examples include:

  • Graduate students doing professional internships. Often the contact is made by the university program directly to the relevant department head (social work, nursing, etc.). Because these students are just about fully trained and are called "interns," welcoming them is seen as a professional obligation or courtesy by the staff, to whom it may seem insulting or irrelevant to treat them as "volunteers."
  • Groups who help the organization collectively, perhaps for one visit a year such as caroling, garden clean-up, or running a holiday party. Here the contact may come through an activity or therapy office, or even directly through administration.
  • Clergy who visit under various types of chaplaincy programs. These visits frequently go beyond an occasional friendly chat. They may be regularly scheduled and the clergyperson may, in turn, recruit others from a congregation to provide additional personal services. This is most often viewed as service to the client, rather than as service to the organization.
  • Children of staff and board members. It is not uncommon for an agency to become surrogate child care, particularly for teenagers. "Helping out" after school or during long school holidays usually means coming to the office with mom or dad and doing a variety of odd, generally menial, jobs. Even more frequent is bringing along one's family members (of any age) to help at a special event.
  • Advisors or consultants with special expertise who donate their professional services, generally directly to the board of directors or to the executive staff.

It doesn't really matter if these service providers think of themselves as "volunteers," nor is it necessary to use that word to describe them. But here is what they have in common with each other and with the more traditional concept of a volunteer. They:

  • Receive no financial remuneration from the agency for their services (even if they are paid by their own employers, they are not reflected on your payroll).
  • Come to the facility for short periods of time on a diverse schedule.
  • Generally have no real understanding of how your organization functions prior to coming in to help.
  • Need basic instructions to do their assignments properly (even the consultant needs to learn how to use your phone system or database).

Does anyone keep track of these time donors from an organization-wide perspective or are they largely invisible? Without a process for integrating such service providers into the volunteer corps, you won't screen them, have a record of their service, report their contribution, or even thank them properly. They will also miss out on support and appreciation, as well as invitations to contribute in additional ways.

Most organizations want to demonstrate that intangible called "community support." If you continually under-report the actual contributed services you receive by ignoring volunteers normally below the radar, you aren't providing a true picture of how many citizens prove through their actions that they care about your work.

One final note about all those relatives of staff and volunteers who are dragged into helping at a special event. Slap a button on them that says "official volunteer," get their names, and give them some choice as to what they'd like to do (rather than being a "go-fer" for their relative). Afterwards, say thank you to them. You might end up recruiting some genuinely willing volunteers!

Why Student "Interns" Are Indeed Volunteers
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

It is a recurring debate in our field whether or not students who receive academic credit for performing an unpaid curriculum-based internship should be considered "volunteers." I contend that they most certainly are, and that it matters a lot for such students to be under the administration of the volunteer resources office. Here's why:

Academic credit cannot be negotiated at the store for a loaf of bread. Just as other volunteers, student interns do not go on your payroll; they may benefit greatly from their service, but not financially. Further, many student interns contribute far more hours to the agency than the minimum required by the school. Is this extra time not "volunteering" in its purest sense?

Sometimes the argument is that student interns require pre-professional roles not often assigned to other volunteers. Maybe it is time to reassess all volunteer assignments, not just those intended for student interns. Creating positions that truly contribute to the organization's services and allow for learning, growth and development is clearly in the best interest of everyone - and will attract a higher caliber of adult volunteer, too.

It takes skill to design good internship assignments, to which too many students left with little to do for a semester can attest. The basic considerations mirror good volunteer work design and it is the volunteer resources manager who can assist in crafting tasks or projects that can be:

  • accomplished within various, limited schedules;
  • handled by someone inexperienced (even if knowledgeable);
  • supervised by a staff member without being a burden; and
  • passed on to successors with minimal interruption.

Once student-focused work has been identified, the volunteer resources office can maintain the list of all internship position vacancies throughout the organization, recruit applicants, and do initial screening and matching. By centralizing internship applications, many staff members will save time by not having to contact various colleges individually and you make sure that all students are told of every available opening. Individual staff supervisors are only aware of what is available in their one particular unit and cannot offer the prospective intern the full range of assignment options. The staff supervisor makes the final decision on acceptance of the intern, just as with any volunteer candidate referred to a unit. But, if a student is not right for one unit, only the volunteer resources manager has the overview necessary to see if there is another possible placement that would be more appropriate.

Every newcomer to the agency deserves an orientation and the volunteer resources office is already set up to provide this. If interns by-pass the volunteer resources office and go directly to a line supervisor, they will not get an overview of the entire organization. Training for the specific task to be done will then be given to the intern by the supervisor (the member of the profession involved), as is appropriate.

There is also a public relations argument for centralizing the coordination of internships in the volunteer resources office. This sort of process allows faculty from all schools to make one contact a semester, referring all the student internship candidates at one time. Similarly, requests for end-of-placement evaluations can be also channeled (one call for the school) to the volunteer resources manager, who can then monitor whether all forms have been submitted as required. Copies of such evaluations can then be kept in the volunteer office with the student intern's other records, so that future references can easily be provided.

If volunteer resources is not in charge of student interns administratively, where will records be kept on student interns? Is anyone keeping such records at all now? Who monitors how much staff time is being spent on interns, how many students have been placed, or what the performance level of interns has been? If for no other reason, it may be necessary to document the work of interns to meet insurance requirements, since, as with all volunteers, there are accident and liability considerations for interns.

Transitioning from an Internship
Student interns separated from agency volunteers rarely receive formal recognition of their accomplishments during their internships. Completing required school evaluations is important feedback, but not necessarily a thank you for work contributed. Only the volunteer resources office can represent the entire agency in expressing the appreciation most students have earned.

It is common for a percentage of students to want to remain active with the agency after the official end of their internships. Are they then expected to "transfer" to the volunteer resources office - or will they remain undocumented (and, essentially, unauthorized) in an unclassified state? In one workshop I taught, a participant admitted that she knew of at least three students who had kept right on with their work for over a year after their school ties had ended, but no one reported it until she asked why the young people were still around. Some of their co-workers in the unit were not even aware that the official internships had ended. Parenthetically, is this the best way to help students with their education? Maybe these students were ready to move on to more challenging assignments in another part of the organization, but no one was responsible for making this offer to them.

As so often happens, there is a ripple effect to doing the right thing for student interns. Not only do students get a more meaningful work experience with greater benefits to the agency, but all volunteer involvement is strengthened. Internships may appeal to a wider audience than simply students, staff raises their expectations of unpaid help, and all volunteer assignments are fully integrated into the organization.