Paid and Unpaid Workers: The Lean In Flap

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August 16, 2013; New York Times, “Bits”


Jessica Bennet, the editor-in-chief of Lean In, advertised on Facebook for an unpaid internship about a week ago in a way that some considered rather rich, in that the organization’s famous founder, Sheryl Sandberg, is very very rich with a net worth of over $1 billion, derived from her (paid—hello!) association with Facebook. Worse than that, the raison d’être of the organization is to encourage women to speak up and be paid what they are worth. (Bennett followed up that post the next day to stress that the ad was “[her] post, on [her] feed…NOT an official Lean In job posting.”)

This kind of faux pas comes under the general heading of tone deaf, but up on stage playing the piano. “Discordant” may be the word—mission-based dissonance. The organization has apologized for its lack of forethought and acknowledged the mistake, but it likely needs to take a more positive stance on unpaid internships to be seen as being a serious player.

By the way, NPQ itself does not have a position on unpaid internships, but we do think that the arena of paid-vs.-unpaid workers in this sector is still largely unexplored. We have had some interesting posts over the past few weeks about this, particularly as regards unionizing in an environment that includes volunteers.

NPQ welcomes the thoughts of its readers in this area. Unpaid or voluntary labor is one of the advantages this sector has, but what are the questions that need to be considered, and in what context?—Ruth McCambridge

  • Michael Wyland

    The related issue of the “Black Swan” case in New York is worth evaluating in this context. NPQ has written about the issue, and the newswire may be found here:

    The implication for the nonprofit sector is that the US Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division states on its web site that, while the rules that apply to for-profit comapnies offering unpaid internships are different from those applying to nonprofits and governments, there is regulator interest in “reviewing” this. Nonprofits, and especially large nonprofits, are well advised to be sure their internships follow the six-point Wage and Hour Division test (included in the article alink above) that was used to decide the “Black Swan” case this year.

  • Lili

    It is frustrating that any organization will exploit people who are looking to do good in the world. There are people who want to make a difference but can’t afford to. If the organization has millions of dollars they should give idealists the opportunity to support themselves while supporting the charity. Organizations will in turn have higher quality work and more stability.

  • Maria Turnbull

    We absolutely agree that the sector’s ability to engage and mobilize community, on a voluntary basis, is a key competitive advantage. Where we might disagree is in the framing of volunteer resources as “unpaid”. We engage passionate community members as volunteers (aka knowledge philanthropists!) in our own mission, to inspire and build leadership in the voluntary sector. We aim to pay them very well – with meaning.The sector’s current focus is on what often appears to be lacking: money. What we call the abundant not-for-profit finds ways to focus on what is available: talented people. We can pay these people differently. We do not have to pay them with money. We can instead pay high-value talent with a meaningful experience. Many thanks, Ruth, for sparking the conversation! Maria Turnbull, Associate Executive Director, Vantage Point

  • www.CaringForOurChildrenFoundation.Org

    Unpaid internships become a wealth of new skilled and unskilled personnel for differing levels of work projects. Their gain of work-skills is our gain with reduced payroll. These individuals often lack the workplace protocol and expect jobs to be less ‘ruled’ than they are. Often tardiness and absenteeism is rampant, not wanting to have a ‘boss’ or knowing how to have a boss occurs coming fresh from high school or junior college–They expect 3 or more warnings or compassion to overrule their lack of work ethics–Ethics is a new word in their dictionary…Yet, their hands on labor, their brain power, and their ‘potential’ to become something special in the workplace makes it worthwhile to venture into the world of staffing with interns. The occasional GEM shines through to becoming a long term employee. Incorporating interns into a program allows us to EXPLORE the POSSIBILITIES and FIND THE GIFTED. Nonprofits benefit from the budget benefit, and the intern gets their foot in the door–a chance to get inside and to show their winning side, when others can only hope for the chance. A little volunteerism goes a long way to establishing worth in the workplace.