Open thread: Is it time for nonprofits to tackle unpaid internships?

Can recent grads afford to work in the nonprofit sector? Increasingly, according to Al Jazeera America, the answer is “no.”

For many grads, in order for them to break into the sector, they are encouraged to take unpaid internships, but this leaves them unable to support themselves, prompting some to stop pursuing nonprofit jobs all together.

Nonprofits have more unpaid internships than other sectors (PDF): 57 percent of internships at nonprofits are unpaid, compared to 48 percent at government agencies and 34 percent at for-profits.

On the one hand, unpaid internships can offer valuable support to nonprofits on tight budgets and allow young people to build skills and explore the sector. On the other, some argue that the practice perpetuates the inequality that many nonprofits try to address as the only people able take unpaid internships are those with financial means.

What do you think? Is it time for nonprofits to address unpaid internships? Share your comments below.


Related Posts

Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.
How to help your network help you find a job Webinar: How to write a winning resume and cover letter [recap]


    • Rmcdonald
    • September 3, 2014

    I am currently a VISTA through AmeriCorps serving with a non-profit in Illinois. I see this as an alternative form of interning that, while the organization I am with doesn’t offer compensation, allows me to receive a modest living allowance while I explore the field.

  1. Yes, it is time for nonprofits and companies to stop the practice of unpaid internships. If you want to hire someone to do a service, that person should be paid even if it is a stipend. The cost of living is too high to have college graduates working for free when many of them owe student loans. If nonprofits want volunteers, then that is what they should get. People who want to donate their time when they can.

    • dennis
    • September 3, 2014

    The time is well past when non-profits need to be compensating interns for their work. Interns deserve a wage that maps to their experience.

    Anything less than this is immoral. To the other writer’s point, if nonprofits want volunteers then ask for volunteers.

    Time to change and anything less than a fair wage is wrong.

    • Anita Tucker
    • September 3, 2014

    I believe unpaid internships will evolve into positions that the baby boomers will gladly take on. They can afford to do it and it serves a need for them to do something meaningful after retirement. Non-profits need to modify their unpaid internship models to seek out willing seniors.

      • Lina Sorenson
      • September 3, 2014

      Unfortunately, looking to the boomers is an empty situation. Yes, more boomers have money than those just out of college and they may sometimes do (true) volunteer work. But if you read the NY Times, you’ll discover several articles on huge groups of Boomers destroyed by the recession and now living “homeless” and becoming the new migrant workers. They also are supporting their aging parents, as well as their children who don’t yet have decent jobs or are still in college. The solution to unpaid internships will have to come elsewhere — perhaps filled by high school students expected to do “service.” But to pretend that the boomers can take up the slack just isn’t feasible.

      And yes, unless someone is LEARNING a completely new skill (e.g., relational databases and not data entry) all workers should be paid. Interns are interns, volunteers are volunteers. Nonprofits are setting a bad example by conflating the two.

    • andrea g.
    • September 3, 2014

    Looking at it from a compliance perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, there is a list of 6 criteria points that the organization must meet in order to have a training program with unpaid interns. It’s true that these recent guidelines were created to crack down on big corporations that were asking their unpaid interns to perform their employees’ work for free, also making it harder for smaller non-profits who can’t afford to pay interns to recruit them. I’ve seen trades, such as college credit or a small stipend for the intern’s services, as a way for the non-profit to compensate the intern.

    • Emilie
    • September 3, 2014

    It is really sad, too, that some unpaid positions allow for a lot of growth but there is nothing at stake. There needs to be a stipend at least, that allows for a moderate drive. The quality of work you get out of the volunteer will equate to what their motivation is. As we know, passion does not remain if it is not fueled by something.

  2. We recently reviewed our practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and decided that we would pay all our interns. You can learn more about what we did and why in this post

    • Tahira
    • September 3, 2014

    I just performed and completed two clinical fields (unpaid internships) in a state clinic. If it were not for my families support, advance planning for impending poverty, wiping out my savings and going on public assistance, gap-fill charities including the soup kitchen where I previously volunteered, I never would have been able to support my family while performing the unpaid internships in the state clinic. Volunteering is one altruistic thing, not to be confused with the questionable practice of forcing unpaid internships, which really puts the well-being of well-intentioned interns in danger of homelessness and hunger.

    • Parker Brown-Nesbit
    • September 3, 2014

    I totally agree with everyone. Volunteers should be volunteers, interns should be interns. There is a difference. Volunteers do what they do for the love of the thing (and sometimes, admittedly, to gain experience in another field without the “formalities”). Interns should be paid–yes, they are learning the field but one assumes they hold a degree in said field.

    As Linda said, looking to baby boomers to fill gaps is becoming harder and harder as more of us have to work just to make ends meet. It’s getting harder & harder to live on Social Security alone.

    • Kelly Baker
    • September 3, 2014

    I am in full agreement with Dennis and others on the matter of engaging volunteers for unpaid assistance rather than interns. Moreover, I think nonprofits don’t realize that offering or requiring “for credit” internships can be even more financially damaging than simply not paying interns. Getting credit at some universities means that students are actually forced to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees for their internships, which is ludicrous.

    But let’s be honest, the issue of fair wages in the nonprofit sector definitely goes beyond the practice of “hiring” unpaid interns to provide essential services to organizations. Too many nonprofit employees are overworked and grossly underpaid. The industry standard of operating on a shoe-string budget needs to change. Although somewhat polemical, I think Dan Pollatta’s TED talk on “the overhead myth” is extremely important to consider here.

    • Dana
    • September 3, 2014

    Yes, I agree. Non-profits must pay their interns if they want value diversity.
    At one non-profit, hiring representatives complained about not finding employees to diversify their homogenous staff. Although qualifications for entry level positions were similar to those at other non-profits, most employees were hired after completing internships with the organization. Applicants with alternate sources of support were more competitive than those who needed to support themselves. Guess which groups are more likely to have had alternate sources of support.

    • Joseph Rodriguez
    • September 25, 2014

    I do agree that it is very difficult for one to take a non-profit internship and then attempt to support themselves without compensation but for the value to learn and gain knowledge, one must not look at the profits. I believe that not every organization should provide a paid internship because not everyone has the proper funding. People should value the fact of learning the ropes to the area that they are passionate about. If one has the desire and passion for what they love, then money wouldn’t very much matter. We all should learn to enjoy the knowledge and forget fact of debt and playing safe. Life is much more exciting when one learns to take risks.

    1. “If one has the desire and passion for what they love, then money wouldn’t very much matter.”

      In that case, could you speak to my landlord about paying my rent with desire and passion instead of money? I somehow don’t think he’d be willing to listen to me about it, but maybe you could explain to him that “learning the ropes” is a sufficient substitute for my rent money.

      Sarcasm aside, this isn’t about greed, or profits, or people “playing it safe”. This is about people being able to support themselves with the bare necessities of life – food, rent, etc. – and not being asked to sacrifice basic needs in the service of “desire and passion” or “learning the ropes”. I understand that nonprofits don’t always have the best cashflow, but if the organization lacks the funding to pay their workers, then they need to do without that position. Unpaid internships are deeply unethical and do nothing but perpetuate the existing issues of economic inequality that plague this world.

    • Olivia
    • September 30, 2014

    When one gets an internship it is usually known that it is unpaid. To get a higher earning job most have to have an unpaid internship to know how to do that job. If they make a mistake it is not like they are on payroll. Nonprofits specifically do not make much money so students can go there purely to get experience for their future job. If a college does not want to have an unpaid internship then do not apply for the job. But many companies want to hire people with experience so one may just have to suffer through unpaid internships to het the job one wants. Therefore I believe its okay for nonprofits and other companies to have unpaid internships.

    1. I’m sorry, but I have to ask, what planet do you people live on? How do you logically expect people to just “suffer through” unpaid work? How are they to live – how do they keep from becoming homeless? How do they keep themselves from starving to death? Experience doesn’t pay the rent or buy food to keep oneself alive. The only reason you can say “to get a higher earning job most have to have an unpaid internship” is because that’s how the system currently works. The cool thing about that, though, is that it’s a created system, and if it’s not working, we have the power to change it.

      In other words, what you’re saying is “because we’ve always relied on exploiting unpaid labor, it’s okay to rely on exploiting unpaid labor because those being exploited should know to expect it by now.”

      How do you ethically defend a practice that by definition requires that the participants be of an economic background that allows them to work for free for as long as required?

      Companies may want to hire people with experience, but did you know that wasn’t always the case? It used to be that job training was an assumed part of the employment relationship. Besides, even if you have all the experience in the world, it always takes some training in a new position to acclimate to and learn a new organization’s practices and policies. So what reason do we have to claim that it’s impossible to stretch that to real job training unless we can exploit that person and make them work for free until we decide they’re sufficiently experienced to be worth paying anything?

    • Nicole
    • November 18, 2014

    As a recent college grad, I absolutely agree that unpaid internships are unfair–not just in the nonprofit sector, but in general. The only people who can take on unpaid internships are those living off wealthy parents. Those who cannot live off their parents, or those who would prefer to not have to do so, are shut out of the jobs they want. We’re forced to take bottom-rung, low-paying, mind-numbing jobs in industries we aren’t passionate about because we’re competing against wealthy people who have been able to take unpaid internships. It perpetuates inequality and sticks the majority of the millennial generation in an uninspiring career path.

    I’ve mostly given up on my goal to work for a nonprofit, at least for the foreseeable future. I need to start earning money now, and most of the entry-level positions go to unpaid interns. It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to a place where enthusiastic and passionate people have to give up on their goals before they’ve even started.

Comments are closed.