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Lay the groundwork before inviting applications

Originally published: June 2017 | Last reviewed: May 2018

Looking for US-specific guidance? Read about preparing to offer internships in the US.

An internship can be a great springboard for those starting out in the nonprofit sector, helping young people secure their first fully-paid role. Hosting organisations benefit, too. Interns bring enthusiasm, new ideas and skills, and — let's be honest — cheaper manpower. Long-term, successful internships may also provide an organisation with a pipeline of potential future employees, as well as lifelong advocates for the cause.

But internships can also be a poor use of time: a source of frustration for the intern and additional strain on staff resources. Alongside thoughtful management, the surest way to avoid that is through careful preparation.

Employees or volunteers, paid or unpaid?

In the UK, "intern" isn't a legal term. For most organisations, an intern is legally classed as either employee or volunteer. That has implications for the intern's rights, and for the expectations an employer can place on the intern.

For example, a volunteer's work hours must be agreed to based on availability. The employer can't require the volunteer to start work at a certain time or require the volunteer to give notice. Doing so may classify the volunteer in legal terms as an employee, making him or her eligible for rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay.

Employers who are charities, however, have an additional option: taking on unpaid workers as "voluntary workers," which makes them exempt from the minimum wage. Many charities use this option for unpaid internships.

Before you go down that route, remember that payment isn't simply good for the intern. It may help your organisation by attracting more qualified and experienced applicants. And it may help ensure that the candidate you hire takes the role seriously — and stays for the full duration of the internship.

That's not to say there's no room for voluntary internships, though. A 2015 review by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) concluded that voluntary internships have their value, and are acceptable as long as the employer can ensure that:

  • Interns are genuinely volunteering (rather than working as an employee would, but for free)
  • Interns receive support and professional development opportunities
  • Intern roles are as accessible as possible

Genuine volunteering, as opposed to unpaid work

If you're not paying your interns, you can't compel them to turn up at a certain time, to work a certain number of hours or to work for a certain duration. In practice, an intern might still work three days per week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. for three months, but you'll have agreed these conditions based on their availability, rather than considering the conditions contractual obligations. (In fact, a volunteer shouldn't be working under a contract anyway.)

Support and development opportunities

An internship (as opposed to straightforward volunteering) implies a career progression benefit for the intern, such as skills development. An intern both expects and deserves this opportunity. Whether it's paid or unpaid, ensure your internship measures up by including access to training or other professional development, as well as feedback from experienced staff.

Depending on your organisation, other intern benefits might include:

  • Opportunities to contribute to creative projects
  • Field trips or project visits
  • Access to events
  • Opportunities to sit in on high-level meetings, such as board meetings or strategic planning sessions

Accessible and inclusive

Unpaid placements exclude those who simply can't afford to work for free, unfairly favoring candidates from better-off backgrounds. Since those who secure internships get a head start in their careers, this is works against diversity in the workforce.

If you aren't paying your interns, make the placement as accessible as possible by offering:

  • Compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, including travel and lunch costs (but be careful to cover actual expenses rather than a flat rate to avoid potential tax implications)
  • Flexible hours or part-time options, to allow interns to continue to fit in paid work
  • Remote working
  • Fair entry requirements (for example, not requiring a degree unless it's truly necessary)

Check that any benefits you offer won't affect the intern's employment status. Even seemingly harmless perks may be perceived as benefits in kind that would classify your intern as an employee. Promising future employment of any kind may have the same effect.

Plan how the internship will fit into your work

Get the most out of your internship before you recruit by thinking through the following questions:

  • Do you want an intern to work on a specific project or ongoing tasks? What areas of work could an intern take on? Typical examples include research, administration, fundraising, social media or event planning.
  • What will your intern gain? What will he or she learn? What unique experience or insights can you offer?
  • What budget can you allocate, aside from any payment to the intern directly, for example to cover expenses for field visits or training?
  • Could junior staff gain managerial experience by supervising interns?
  • What will happen when the internship ends: is the project time-limited or will you hire a successor?

Check you have the resources

It's only fair to your future intern to first be sure you can provide:

  • Office space (although you might request the intern to bring his or her own computer)
  • Essential training, such as health and safety or use of equipment
  • Role-specific training and other professional development opportunities
  • Supervision and regular feedback
  • A feedback session at the end of the internship
  • References

Create a clear, honest job description


  • As clear as possible a description of the projects or tasks the intern will be working on, and whether you're flexible in terms of the intern's areas of interest
  • Any mundane tasks the intern will be expected to do — better to be up front than have future interns leave when the work doesn't meet expectations
  • Expected start and end date, part-time or full-time hours, and how flexible you are on these
  • Educational qualifications
  • Other skills (such as languages or IT experience)
  • Any background checks required (and whether you can cover any costs incurred)

You might use volunteer job descriptions as a guide.

This article draws on the expertise of YourPeople, a UK-based firm that provides outsourced human resources services across all sectors.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



InternAware: Interns in the voluntary sector

NCVO: Volunteer internships in the voluntary sector: Review and guidance (2015)

Cause4: All work no pay: Charities' unpaid interns by Beth Brindle (2016)

Dataplan: 5 frequently asked questions surrounding voluntary workers by Carly Boyd (2015)



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