Nonprofits: It’s Time to “Lean Into” Paid Internships

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Let’s have a conversation: Are unpaid internships a moral issue for the nonprofit sector?

Editors’ Note: The opinion piece below suggests that unpaid internships are bad not only for interns but for the sector as a whole. NPQ may not agree with all of the points being made, but we think that it is invites discussion well worth having. Do you agree or disagree with the position taken below?

Correction: Due to a technical error, this article was posted on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 attributed to the wrong author. NPQ apologizes to Marikaye DeTemple and Nathan Parcells for any confusion or inconvenience we may have caused.


Unpaid internships are a hot topic as of late, especially for private sector businesses like film studios and magazine conglomerates. But in light of the recent unpaid intern controversy surrounding Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit Lean In Foundation, it’s time to move the internship compensation discussion toward the nonprofit sector.

While we excitedly tip our hats to the Lean In Foundation for establishing a paid internship program, it’s unfortunate that this transformation only took place after a PR catastrophe. Sadly, for many students and recent graduates looking to bolster their experience in the nonprofit sector, pay is often out of the question.

It’s time to look past the standard explanation of tight budgets and limited resources. Why aren’t more nonprofits—like the Lean In Foundation—offering paid internship opportunities?

Here’s why it’s time to lean into paid internships:

The Problem with Offering Unpaid Internships

It’s no secret that nonprofits rely on the efforts of passionate and committed interns to keep daily operations running. With protection through the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for legal unpaid internships, they have yet to receive any legal pushback for their uncompensated offerings. But this doesn’t mean they’re not doing their unpaid interns an injustice.

Bringing on a crop of unpaid interns might be fantastic for your nonprofit, but it may be just the opposite for those you’ve temporarily hired. Unpaid internships strain both students and the economy. Today’s students are so strapped for cash during and after their college years that 65 percent end up relying on financial assistance from parents during their internships. Why push your unpaid interns even further into debt?

Unpaid Internships Aren’t In Line with Nonprofit Values

Your organization’s very purpose is to help the less fortunate. But by offering unpaid internships and benefitting from the work of numerous interns, you’re actually putting students and recent graduates into an unfair situation. You’re only opening the door to those potential interns who can afford to take on an unpaid opportunity, adequately gatekeeping your interns as determined by their socioeconomic status.

Sure, there’s always the point that they’re getting valuable experience. While internships should be thoroughly immersive educational experiences, putting your interns into an uncomfortable financial situation isn’t helping them—it’s actually going directly against your nonprofit’s values and mission and maintaining the status quo.

Interns and Volunteers Aren’t Synonymous

While nonprofits across the country refuse to shake the “we can’t afford to pay our interns” platform, Lean In and many other organizations have dreamed up their own solution, one that’s potentially even more damaging: calling their unpaid interns “volunteers.”

Now, wait a second—there’s a big difference between hiring an intern and signing on volunteers. Hiring interns means bringing on a valuable asset to your organization, someone who hopes to make a career out of nonprofit work and positively affect your organizational goals. They will be trained and immersed in hands-on projects and experiences and have a huge stake in your nonprofit’s daily operations. A volunteer is someone who lends their time—often on a case-by-case basis—to benefit your organization and the greater good. These two just aren’t interchangeable.

Making the Switch to Offering Paid Internships

It’s time to get on the right side of history and make the jump to offering paid internships.

Allocating funds for your internship program may be a challenge, especially on a tight nonprofit budget, but it’s something that will benefit your organization for years to come. You’ll draw in more talented, engaged, and hirable candidates from a more diverse pool of applicants—not just those with the income level, parental backing, or cash to afford it.

Whether you transition slowly or quickly, there are many options. You can start by offering a stipend to cover your interns’ daily commuting and lunch expenses throughout their time with you. As for offering internships at minimum wage rate, you may decide to bring on fewer interns to make ends meet. Consider cutting down the number of hours your interns currently work per week, or offer them the opportunity to work from home some days to ensure you can properly compensate them for their time with you.

Looking toward the future, there’s hope for paid internships at nonprofits. Will you be on the right side of history? Do you think nonprofit interns should be compensated financially?

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  • Kim Meredith

    Thank you Marikaye! I work at a University and many organizations ask if I will help them find student interns. My personal policy has been to only recruit for paid internships. If you don’t pay a summer intern or school year intern then you are only recruiting from a pool of students who are financially independent, which leaves behind most students who we are mentoring. Let’s also raise the issue of unpaid Congressional interns– who gets those jobs—young people who’s parents can support them so we leave behind those who might benefit most from the opportunity. Nonprofits, business and government should pay interns. It is distinctly different from volunteer activities.

    Kim Meredith
    Executive Director
    Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society
    Stanford Social Innovation Review

  • William Henry, Executive Director, Volunteers Insurance Service Association

    This article perpetuates the false notion that “interns” are more valuable to the organization than are “volunteers”. The paragraph that attempts to differentiate the two doesn’t make the case, and reflects an apparent lack of understanding of how volunteers are engaged and how much they contribute to an organization. The article also ignores the fact that many people who would like to be interns are more than willing to take one or more part-time jobs for a few months so they can gain experience at the nonprofit without having to earn income there. They’ve taken to social media to make the point.

    What’s needed is some clarity from the Labor Department regarding employers’ responsibilities for internship programs. With the murky guidance we have now, there are likely to be more cases like the one involving the “Black Swan” movie, in which a federal judge ruled that “interns” were entitled to back pay because the production company did not follow the guidance properly.

  • Joanna Rutter

    I strongly agree with point #2. Having held two unpaid internships only by the grace of living close to the offices and the socioeconomic opportunity to work for no money all summer, I often thought about how people my age with just as much passion and skill are barred from the nonprofit sector because of their financial need. Such a sad irony that I hope paid internships can remedy soon. I’m seeking a third internship to hone my skills, but I refuse to do another unpaid stint. It is ridiculous and ultimately unfair.

  • Megan Medeiros

    I totally appreciate this article and agree that it is unfortunate that nonprofits have a culture of “we don’t have the money for [insert great idea here].”

    However, as the founder of an unpaid internship program who personally recruited and mentored over 100 interns over the past four years, I have a slightly different perspective. To be brief, the vast majority of our interns either received college credit and/or gained extremely valuable experience that led to paid work within a year.

    At every single interview, I asked the question, “what skills or knowledge to you want to learn or practice to get your dream job?” Then, we structured the internship if they were hired based on their response. We organized mentorships, trained them on networking, and provided career development like resume review and interview practice. Many interns actually quit or reduced their hours at their paying part time jobs with the desire to put more time into their internship with us because we provided such a rich learning environment.

    I volunteered in an intern-like role for nearly every single non-profit I have been hired at because I knew the organization, and the staff knew I was passionate about their mission BECAUSE I chose to volunteer my time. Unfortunately, higher education (a learning experience students are paying way too much for in my opinion) does not provide students with the experience that young people need to be successful in the work environemnt like how to right in a non-academic way, how to network, how to affect change in our democracy, how to run a campaign, how create and follow a work plan, how to write a professional email, or AT LEAST how to teach yourself these skills etc. These basic skills are frustrating to teach when you are paying someone for their time as an employee. Our interns learn all of these skills and are quickly swooped up by local nonprofits as paid staff. Furthermore, both of the staff I managed were interns before they were hired.

    So, I wasn’t so brief, but to conclude I want to touch on the importance of inclusivity for people who can’t afford an unpaid role for whatever reason. I agree this is an issue and it can be addressed in several ways. If they are a student, making sure that plenty of credits will be awarded for an unpaid internships. Offering to pay for food and travel when they come to the office is a great idea, even if it’s only on an as needed basis. Inclusivity is no small issue to overlook and there are ways of making an internship work for someone of low income, especially if you make sure they are gaining much much more than they are spending (espeically when you compare the internship to them sitting in a class alternatively).

    Happy to continue this conversation.

  • Jenny Christie

    One thing nonprofits who are interested in hiring but need some assistance can utilize are the local workforce programs. It is often unlnown that the county workforce often offers training subsidies that can help employers offset the initial cost of hiring and training. This benefits the economy throught the employee and the employer.. Get in contact with your local workforce to find out more about the programs.

  • Johanna (Joan) Boomsma

    I agree that internship should be paid – with the understanding that they are really the pre-entrelevel, base below the bottom rung of the non-profit corporate ladder (as with for-profit ladders also). The intern and the internship provider will be able to measure work versus product/result as is expected in employee vs employer relations. Our monies/grants are usually tied to benefit oriented results and paid internships should fall under those guidelines also.

  • Alex Guest

    As a happily unpaid intern for a nonprofit, I don’t accept a blanket solution of condemning unpaid internships or the nonprofits who offer them. My position would not exist if it had to be a paying position and I am very happy to be able to help build up this small nonprofit so that they are soon able to hire full-time staff.

    We should be rightly concerned about the lack of options for a debt-saddled student, but I believe that the solution is to remove socioeconomic barriers to education in the first place, not create barriers for small nonprofits to get off the ground by requiring them (legally or socially) to pay their interns.

  • james peters

    As a recent graduate looking for a job in the non-profit sector I run across unpaid internships all the time. Sure, an internship is a great experience and is also an investment for a future career (also from the employer’s side), but does this mean it should be unpaid? I think not and I have two reasons:
    1) Paying someone is a way of showing them that you take the task and responsbility given to him/her seriously. If the task isn’t serious you ask yourself if you’re not just offloading uniteresting work to someone else.
    2) The best (future) employees are not always the wealthiest ones. In Europe at least, most employees in the non-profit sector are white and of middle-high class. Could the fact that some people have to earn money as soon as possible, and simply cannot afford the investment of an unpaid internship, be related to the general absence of the some minorities and social classes from the non-profit workforce?

  • Christa Beall Diefenbach

    As a network of universities offering nonprofit academic programs, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance strongly agrees that paid internships is the right thing to do (for the many reasons stated above). It is unfortunate then that 79% of the students working toward the Alliance’s Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP) credential complete an unpaid internship. To make matters worse, our students paid an average of $1081 in tuition for each internship.

    Part of it is the reality of the financial situation facing many nonprofits. Part is the nonprofit culture: because the work we do is so important, people should join the effort (regardless of our ability to pay a fair wage). This is a collective issue, and deserves a collective response. For nonprofits that provide a valuable learning experience but just cannot pay an internship wage, they could find a community partner (a foundation or other entity) willing to underwrite the internship stipend. The Alliance, for example, does provide competitive internship stipends to students completing the CNP at one of our 40 affiliated campuses. This is critical to our mission, as the nonprofit sector needs a talented and prepared workforce. And that means pulling from all talent pools, not just the ones who can afford to work an unpaid internship.

    Christa Beall Diefenbach
    Director of Marketing
    Nonprofit Leadership Alliance

  • Nathan Parcells

    Great insight, Kim! I appreciate the work you’re doing to further paid internships. It’s true that unpaid internships are damaging due to the fact that they’re only accessible to those who can afford them. Over half of interns who take on internships need financial assistance to make ends meet during their internship semester. This money is either coming from family and friends or student loans. That’s a luxury not many students can afford these days.

  • Nathan Parcells

    Thanks for reading, William! I do not believe that interns are more valuable to an organization than volunteers. Nonprofits are kept afloat by the outstanding efforts of their volunteers. I was pointing out that interns and volunteers aren’t meant to fit into the same category. While many interns originally start out as volunteers, they’re likely students or recent graduates looking to further their professional, pre-entry-level career experience to hone their skills as more than just a volunteer. Interns are essentially temporary employees, and they deserve to be paid if they’re doing the same work as compensated employees.

    In response to your valuable point about unpaid interns’ willingness to take on part-time work to make ends meet, this is an important option, but isn’t always possible for every intern. There are logistical factors — for instance, how does an intern working unpaid, full-time fit in a side gig? Not to mention the fact that even part-time, paid gigs may not even cover the cost of rent, food and travel. Gaining professional experience in an internship setting shouldn’t require students to offset their personal costs via their parents, student loans or a few part-time jobs just to get a leg up into their chosen industry. All work should be paid work, period.

    I do agree that the Labor Department has a lot of clarification to do to ensure their internship guidelines are up to par with our modern employment situation. These unclear guidelines are why so many employers are left misinformed when it comes to their internship programs.

  • Nathan Parcells

    Thanks for reading, Joanna! Being able to take a valuable career-changing experience for no pay is a privilege that many students and recent graduates can’t afford on their own. While nonprofits are often working on tight budgets, offering any kind of pay opens the door to more candidates. On another note, I appreciate your refusal to accept an unpaid internship moving forward. If all interns would refuse unpaid work, we may finally see the problem eradicated, but students often rightly feel they have no choice. All interns deserve to be paid at least the federal minimum wage or a worthy stipend for their efforts.

  • Nathan Parcells

    You sparked a great conversation, Megan! First, I want to thank you for your work as an intern manager. It’s clear that your hard work and interest in creating a beneficial, immersive experience for your interns has truly paid off. Going above and beyond to provide proper training, mentorship and resume-building projects is setting up your interns for long-term success on their chosen career paths.

    While I firmly believe (and our internal research shows) that providing a meaningful internship experience trumps pay when it comes to earning the interest of a potential intern, not offering pay means losing out on candidate who can’t afford to make the sacrifice. Part-time jobs and accommodating an intern’s busy schedule are helpful, but offering at least minimum wage will ensure your interns are fully engaged in getting the most out of their internship. It also ensures we don’t maintain the status quo, in which middle and upper middle class students are the only ones who can afford an unpaid, career-advancing gig.

    I do agree that offering a stipend for food or travel is a must. And while ensuring school credit is great, it doesn’t take away any of the cost burden. This is due to the fact that college credits cost money for students. Therefore, your interns are likely spending more money by taking on more college credits to take part in your internship program.

    Thanks for this conversation. I appreciate your input and believe you’re doing great things as an intern manager. The compensation conversation is very important to the nonprofit sector.

  • Nathan Parcells

    Thanks for sharing this helpful advice, Jenny! For resource-and cash-strapped organizations, local workforce programs definitely seem like a good bet. It’s best to dig deep and consider all of your options before making hiring decisions — even if it’s just bringing on a summer intern.

  • Vanzide Darden

    Very interesting and a well taken point. Definitely an idea that I will consider once my non-profit is ready to start. Very thought provoking. I will share this information with my board. Thanks for the insight.

  • Nathan Parcells

    I think this is a great way to set up both nonprofit and for-profit organizational internship programs. Bringing on talented, paid interns is a great way to directly affect a company’s bottom line. In another comment, someone mentioned partnering with community organizations or companies to offer payment to interns, and this can be a great option for results-oriented nonprofits as well.

  • Nathan Parcells

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! While it’s great that you’re passionate about helping a small nonprofit to grow even without pay, we can’t deny that our careers and work lives exist in large part so we can take care of our individual, daily needs — and that requires money. Offering unpaid positions creates barriers for low-income students and people of color who may have families to support, debt payments, rent and other economic concerns that make them unable to afford to take time off to build their resume and work for free. It’s great that you were able to take an unpaid position and stay on your feet, but keep in mind this isn’t the case for all. Some people risk falling into poverty if they miss a paycheck. For that reason, we feel that nonprofits and companies that can’t afford to pay their interns should forego internship programs altogether.

    It’s true that we should work to remove socioeconomic barriers to education, but that will take lots of time and far-reaching solutions. In the interim, we hope that institutions will take it upon themselves to do what’s right for debt-strapped students and offer them at least minimum wage for their efforts.

  • Nathan Parcells

    I agree, James! Foregoing intern pay hurts an institution’s reputation and removes opportunities for low-income and economically disadvantaged people. In effect, it maintains the status quo you’re talking about — the one in which white, middle class individuals are the only ones who can afford to break into the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit work especially benefits from the voices of people who hail from disadvantaged and exploited communities, so it’s imperative to open nonprofit positions to all by offering at least the federal minimum wage. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Nathan Parcells

    Thanks for all you’re doing to advance paid internships, Christa! Those numbers are interesting, and I’ll be sure to highlight them when writing about this topic in the future. Partnering with community foundations and other institutions can certainly be a great way to allocate funds for nonprofit internship programs. Offering pay is crucial when it comes to drawing in candidates from diverse backgrounds, not just white, middle-class individuals.

  • Brenda

    I want to add that I agree with the fact that interns should be paid. First , when you have graduate student interns, they are usually bringing something to the table, and are not the lowest level on the rung. Secondly, I notice that organizations who use interns use them in place of paid staff, so they are getting free labor. I am already paying the school and consequently, I am paying the organization to use me as free labor. I also think they should consider the number of hours that should be included in an internship. As a graduate student, who also works full-time, I have to work extra hours on my job just to accommodate my internship. At least if they don’t pay your salary, maybe they can provide a stipend. Unfortunately, more organizations are using unpaid student interns and I hope that if enough pressure is applied, the tide will turn on this unfortunate practice.

  • Fiona Kirton

    I have another angle on this article. That is charities discriminating against those that have learnt their skills as unpaid interns or volunteers when hiring for paid posts. I am somewhat unusual in that I did a career change at 53, after complications due to surgery for cancer meant that I could not continue in my previous career. As I had always been involved in Community Development and had previously attained a OCN Cert in Fundraising from Warwick University decided to make this my new career.

    I have worked for two charities to expand my skill base, most recently a growing development NGO, Temwa. I saw a gap in their fundraising capacity and developed their trust and foundation fundraising. I started making applications on their behalf in January and so far this year working 14 hours a week have raised 85K, which equated to 425K a year. Not bad going in the current climate especially as its for a development charity, when many funders are now focusing closer to home.

    After a year with Temwa and with new confidence under my belt I started applying for paid posts. Imagine my surprise when applying for a post with The Child Brain Injury Trust I am told that I cannot be shortlisted as they are only interested in applicants that have worked in a paid role. Totally incensed at the hypocrisy of this I checked in the office with the graduate interns I work with, low and behold there were instances of this from their experience. They were interviewed then told they had good skills but that the charities concerned were taking on a new employee who had previously been in a paid post. The recruiter that I spoke to about this decision by CBIT said charities felt more confident in investing in someone that had previously been paid by another charity. To my way of thinking someone who has the dedication to be an unpaid intern and do a good job deserves a post as much as anybody else.

    Considering that the Third Sector relies so heavily on unpaid interns and volunteers I think it is very bad practice not to mention hypocritical to then discriminate against them when paid role comes up.

  • Jenny Christie

    Thank you for the response. This was a very interesting article.

  • Jayne Cravens

    “Now, wait a second—there’s a big difference between hiring an intern and signing on volunteers. Hiring interns means bringing on a valuable asset to your organization, someone who hopes to make a career out of nonprofit work and positively affect your organizational goals. They will be trained and immersed in hands-on projects and experiences and have a huge stake in your nonprofit’s daily operations. A volunteer is someone who lends their time—often on a case-by-case basis—to benefit your organization and the greater good. ”

    No no no no no! Time to come into the 21st Century. Actually, back in the 20th century, many nonprofits, and those that train on volunteer engagement, stopped talking about volunteers in your old-fashioned way. Volunteers donate their unpaid time for all sorts of reasons – because they are angry, because they are lonely, because they are dating one of the other volunteers, because they need class credit, because they think it will be fun and, indeed, because they are exploring careers and want experience for seeking paid work. Involving volunteers means bringing on a valuable asset to your organization, whether you call them members of your board of directors, pro bono consultants, unpaid interns, or simply “volunteers.”

    Why do nonprofits involve volunteers, INCLUDING unpaid interns? It should never be, primarily, because they don’t want to pay staff, because they can’t afford it. Rather, it should be because volunteers are the best people for the task at hand. There are some things done better by volunteers. Volunteers can bring diversity to an organization otherwise lacking in such. Volunteers can provide the community a way to invest in the mission of the organization beyond just giving money. Volunteer engagement can demonstrate transparency. Volunteers can often be some of the best marketers you will ever have. Volunteer engagement may contribute to your mission. And on and on and on.

    With all that said – if an organization cannot say why a certain task is best done by a volunteer – including an unpaid intern – then the nonprofit needs to be prepared to make that position paid, whether they call that person a consultant or a paid intern – whatever.

    I write about this subject frequently:

  • Theresa Williamson

    A very interesting conversation, thanks for initiating! Seems to me though that the writer hasn’t considered that unpaid interns are opting for this and often get a LOT out of it. Our organization, for example, offers unpaid interns carefully designed internships around their interests and passions that provide unique and invaluable access to the communities we work with in Rio de Janeiro and insight into urban trends that propels their careers beyond. Our interns go on to paid positions in major news outlets, doctoral programs, Fulbrights, and so on. We then hire a subset who are very talented and want to stay engaged for paid internships after their original 3 month internship. Not only do interns benefit from all that learning, but they propel our organization forward in new directions based on the projects they undertake. Not to mention we form a growing collaborative community around issues of favela rights and advocacy–interns past and present become a part of a great network of mutual support and engagement. It’s a hugely mutual win-win. And in the past, when we didn’t organize it this way, we simply had less demand for internships. Interns seek out internships that add value (whether cash or in-kind) to their lives, and those internships become attractive to top talent. A major asset of nonprofits over for-profits and government is our ability to harness non-financial resources and build a world beyond them and which doesn’t depend on them. Your proposal would do away with that.

    Finally, the difference between interns and volunteers is not financial nor should it be. It is a matter of engagement, participation, and skills applied. Interns can simply be highly engaged volunteers who participate as staff and as such get additional exposure and experience. Payment is not what makes this difference.

    Thanks again for initiating the debate NPQ!


    I think Alex is right on. Small nonprofits are hugely important–they develop new programs, are generally closer to the communities they serve, and are often based on mutual cooperation, a different model from large nonprofits and a very important model to invest in so that we don’t depend on the paycheck so much. Civil society is all about building new visions of how reality could be: adopting a business logic that financial payment is the only reward worth having runs counter to a just and healthy society that values everyone. “Value” does not have to be financial.

    Though I agree with Nathan that nonprofits are the last institutions that should be exploiting workers (obviously!), I’m not sure why we assume that non-financial reward constitutes “exploitation”. Interns like Alex find value in their work and it is their option.

    Nathan, regarding the important concern that people of color and low-income students often aren’t always able to take on unpaid internships, that’s absolutely true, though there are universities and colleges and foundations that fund such internships. The expansion of these programs for small nonprofits is something to advocate for. And requiring large nonprofits to pay interns perhaps might be too. But bleeding small organizations or those based primarily on non-financial models of cooperation of interns that find alternative sources of value in their unpaid work is only going to damage the sector.

    I hope you find space in your argument for these considerations. Otherwise you are doing more harm than good.

    Thanks again for the debate!

    Theresa Williamson
    Executive Director
    Catalytic Communities