Developing a Successful Intern Program

Could your nonprofit benefit from hiring interns? Find out the plusses and pitfalls of an intern program & take our Blue Avocado quiz to see if you’re ready.

Developing a Successful Intern Program
9 mins read

How can you determine if interns are right for your nonprofit and best utilize them if so?

Interns can be a godsend to any nonprofit. Depending on their background, they may be as valuable as paid staff and their main goals are typically finding an opportunity to learn and grow.

I spent five semesters of college and grad school as a nonprofit intern, so when I became a manager, I decided to pay it forward and host interns myself. I’ve now managed several interns—ranging from high schoolers to grad school students, and short-term to long—each with their own personalities and objectives.

Here are my tips, words of wisdom, and best and worst practices to consider before hosting your first intern.

Best practices:

  1. Paid or unpaid? Generally speaking, nonprofits can get away with offering unpaid internships as long as they are providing education and training or labelling them as a volunteer opportunity. I was never once compensated for any of my time as an intern, but it was part of my social work training. Otherwise, be sure to research your state’s legislation regarding legal requirements of interns. However, in my experience most students are willing to forgo pay for the experience.
  2. Make sure it is a mutually beneficial relationship between the supervisor, your nonprofit, and the intern. The student may have certain educational requirements or their own personal goals. Try to help them achieve those as well as any you set. The best way to maintain the intern’s passion for your mission is to assign them tasks that actually interest them.
  3. Maintain a regular schedule with the intern and hold them accountable as you would any other employee. I find it helpful to sign an informal contract with the intern to clearly lay out your expectations and requirements, along with any goals or milestones against which they’ll be measured. It also helps to ensure they don’t ghost you mid-project. If you host an intern who is placed for a class, there will be a formal contract and you will complete an evaluation at the end of each semester.
  4. Provide weekly supervision to ensure the needs of the intern and the nonprofit are met. This is another way to maintain accountability, plus these meetings will be helpful if your student is interning as part of a class and you need to evaluate them at the end of the semester. How can you do that if you’re not working with them weekly or at least maintaining supervision?
  5. Take the time to help the student learn. Anything can be a teachable moment. Remember, since they are likely not getting paid they’re looking for value in other ways. Make it a valuable experience for you both by taking the time to explain things, including not just the what or the how, but the why.
  6. Set expectations for the rest of the staff. Is the intern assigned to one staff member or one department, or can anyone assign tasks? Make sure this is clear to everyone involved and if there are multiple, competing supervisors, create a clear pecking order so the intern never has to guess which request to handle first.
  7. Find someone who is passionate about your mission. The same considerations apply as when hiring staff. Are you going to hire someone who smokes two packs a day if you work for the American Lung Association? Probably not. Find someone who is already aligned with your mission.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  1. The intern ends up being a burden rather than being helpful. The last thing you want is for hosting an intern to be more work on your plate. Ideally the intern will help lighten your load, not add to it. The best thing you can do to avoid this is to take the time to plan ahead and invest a little time upfront to set them up for success. Prepare projects and assignments for the intern. Take the time to train them as if they were regular employees to make things easier for you in the long run.
  2. The intern becomes the office “busy-worker” or “errand runner.” They are not there to be your personal assistant, so no coffee runs or dry-cleaning pick-ups. Keep in mind the number one reason the intern is there is to learn. Most of the time they are coming to you as a student. Always keep their learning goals in mind. What kind of experience will they get if they spend 20 hours a week licking envelopes and washing windows? Create meaningful experiences for the student based on their academic level and previous work experience.
  3. Everyone wants to dump tasks on the intern. Set expectations for the rest of the staff. The last thing you want to hear is, “Oh, let’s give this project to the intern” or “Hey, can’t your intern do this?” The answer is no. If it’s not part of their learning goals or assignments, don’t let others take advantage of you or your intern. I know that sharing is caring, but you don’t want the student to get overloaded by doing everyone else’s busy work. A few times people tried to pull a fast one and assigned tasks to my interns without my knowledge, leading them to put other tasks I assigned aside. Ensure your intern knows exactly who they take orders from and who has priority.
  4. Overstepping boundaries. Your relationship with the interns should be kept professional. Treat your interns as you would any other direct report. Avoid friendships or especially getting involved romantically and extend this expectation to everyone on staff.

To summarize, hosting interns can be a very rewarding experience. They can add great value to your team, especially if you have limited resources. For example, I really needed extra hands and my nonprofit didn’t have budget to spare. So I created my own team. They helped me, and in return, I added value to their lives by helping them learn and prepare for the next step in their careers.

We talk a lot about enlisting the next generation of donors, but the nonprofit sector also needs to think ahead about the leaders of our movement in the years to come.

Blue Avocado Quiz: Are You Ready for An Intern?

Here’s a quiz to help you figure out whether it’s the right time for you to bring on an intern—give yourself one point for each “yes” response. You can also download this quiz here: Blue Avocado Readiness for Interns Quiz

  1. Are we clear how an intern will help our nonprofit? Yes or No
  1. Do we have specific tasks or projects that an intern can fulfill? Yes or No
  1. Is there a staff member who has the capacity to supervise the intern? Yes or No
  1. Do we have the physical space for an intern to sit and work? Yes or No
  1. Will the tasks/projects we’re thinking of assigning also bring value to an intern? Yes or No
  1. Does the supervisor have an area of expertise they’re passionate about sharing with the intern? Yes or No
  1. Is the intern’s supervisor planning to stay at the nonprofit for the duration of the intern agreement? Yes or No
  1. Is leadership on board with bringing on an intern? Yes or No
  1. Is there a job description and a clear process for assigning work to the intern of which all staff is aware? Yes or No
  1. Do you have a local source to find interns nearby, such as a university or college? Yes or No

Scoring Key:

  • 9-10 points: Sounds like you’re ready to bring on an intern and ensure everyone involved benefits!
  • 6-8 points: You might have some needs an intern could fill, but consider carefully any questions where you responded with “No” and identify clearly what needs to change before you’re ready.
  • 5 or fewer points: Probably not a good time for bringing on an intern. Use this quiz to get all your ducks in a row before reconsidering.

About the Author

Audrey Del Prete has been volunteering, interning, and/or working in nonprofits for over ten years. Her experience runs the gamut from interning with Social Services as a college junior to being promoted to director at an education-based nonprofit where she currently works and hosts interns. Her areas of expertise and passions include interpersonal violence/trauma issues and promoting health and wellness for individuals and companies. As a social worker, she greatly values the work of nonprofits and seeks to make the lives of nonprofit workers just a little bit easier.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

One thought on “Developing a Successful Intern Program

  1. Your first statement about paid or unpaid fails to recognize that student without financial resources are unable to take unpaid internships. I would be embarrassed to say that “most students are willing to forgo pay for the experience.” What I hear is “students of means whose parents or partners are supporting them through college can afford to work for free.” Every unpaid internship is filled by a student with financial means. Imagine a student who is supporting themselves through college. They need the internship to build out their resume and get valuable experience. But instead they have to take a job at the local shop just to pay the rent and buy food. So pay your interns. Stop “getting away” with unpaid labor. Figure out how to pay student interns. You’ll get a wider and better array of applicants, too.

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