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Starting a nonprofit internship program? Lay the groundwork before you start accepting applications.

An internship is a form of experiential learning that allows a person to apply classroom knowledge in a practical setting and develop skills in the professional world. Internships can be a win-win for interns and nonprofits alike, but there's work to do before you start accepting intern applications. Here's what to consider before you forge ahead with an internship program.

What are the benefits of an internship program?

Interns can provide valuable support for temporary or seasonal projects. An effective internship program can bring in motivated workers with new ideas and fresh approaches. Other possible benefits include increasing your organization's diversity and raising the visibility of your nonprofit and its mission on campuses.

Offering internships also goes hand in hand with the philosophy of nonprofit work. Internships allow you to give back to your community by providing preprofessionals with training and experience in the workforce.

What's the difference between employees, volunteers and interns?

Before you seek interns, it's important to understand the difference between nonprofit employees, volunteers and interns.

For starters, employees have the right to minimum wage and overtime protection under the U.S. Department of Labor's Fair Labor Standards Act.

Volunteers aren't offered the same coverage. To be considered a volunteer, a person must act without compensation or the expectation of compensation of any sort, including money, room, board or perks. When determining if a person is a volunteer, consider whether the work being done is less than a full-time occupation, whether it displaces regular employees, and if the services are typically considered volunteer work.

If you classify unpaid interns as volunteers, make sure:

  • The internship is similar to training that would be given in an academic environment
  • The internship is for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern doesn't displace regular employees, but works under their supervision
  • Your nonprofit doesn't gain an immediate advantage from the intern's activities (and might even be impeded by them)
  • The intern won't automatically get a job at your nonprofit at the end of the internship
  • Both you and the intern understand that the intern isn't entitled to wages for the internship

There might be some wiggle room in meeting these requirements, but most experts recommend proceeding with caution. If an intern does work similar to that of an employee, the intern is more likely to be considered an employee — and lawfully entitled to compensation.

It's important to note that volunteers and unpaid interns can be paid a stipend. In general, a stipend shouldn't exceed 20 percent of what an employee would have been paid for doing the same job and can't be tied to number of hours worked or productivity.

What are the most important considerations before offering internships?

Before kicking off an internship program, answer the following questions:

  • What are some specific ways interns might support your mission? Perhaps interns could do research or write, develop new business leads, or provide other organizational support.
  • What are the goals of the internship program? For some nonprofits, the goal is getting help to complete a project. For others, internships serve as a potential employee pipeline.
  • What will interns gain from the program? What type of unique experience can you offer in your field?
  • What resources are available to support interns? Can your nonprofit provide training, support and supervision? Do you have enough office space? Do you have the support of leadership?
  • What is the time period for the internship? Will you offer part-time or full-time internships? Is there an ideal start date and end date for the program?
  • What are the qualifications or educational requirements for an intern? Will you need interns of certain grade levels or with particular majors or programs of study? Will your interns need to have any specific skills or technical knowledge to support your mission?
  • Will the internship be paid or unpaid? Consider your budget, the work you'll be asking the interns to do and how much training you'll provide to determine whether your interns should be classified as volunteers, paid interns or unpaid interns. Keep in mind that offering paid internships might help you target the best pool of applicants — and show that you value the interns' work.
  • Could your staff gain managerial experience through supervising the interns? Internships may offer valuable experience for interns and staff alike.

Thoughtful preparation can help ensure a successful internship program for years to come.

This article draws on the expertise of Grace Davies, a Minneapolis-based attorney with special interest in product liability, medical malpractice and employment discrimination.



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



Blue Avocado: Legalities of nonprofit internships by Ellen Aldridge

Generocity: The state of paid and unpaid internships in the nonprofit sector by Kristen Gillette (2013)

Whiteford Taylor Preston: Interns in the nonprofit world (2012)

Massachusetts Nonprofit Network: Five tips for managing your internship program by Paul Holtzman and Anjali Waikar (2013)

Capterra: How to manage interns to drive your nonprofit's mission this summer by Hannah S. Ostroff (2015)

Stevenson University: Developing an internship program at your organization



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