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Unpaid Intern Trap: How Nonprofits Replicate Inequality and Lose Talent

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Desired qualifications of entry-level nonprofit professionals?

Dedication to a mission. Communication skills. Team work.
The ability to work for free.

Wait. What?

Is this really what’s happening in the sector? A recent article discussed frustrations of young nonprofit professionals. Many work for free, sometimes for years, trying to get a foot in the door. In terms of unpaid internships, nonprofits are the worstAccording to Intern Bridge- 57 percent of internships at nonprofits are unpaid, compared with 48 percent in government and 34 percent at for-profit businesses.

Jobs in the nonprofit world continue to be attractive to students. However, the reality of unpaid internships, a lack of internal career ladders, and high levels of student debt, prices young people out of the sector.

At the same time staffing and talent management is a problem. Much has been made about the dearth of leadership in nonprofits, and an upcoming ‘leadership vacuum’ as boomers retire. Furthermore, many nonprofits consistently struggle with attracting and retaining minority candidates.

Susan Tomlinson Schmidt, Vice President of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, recently stated that unpaid internships were a significant barrier for nonwhite students. By creating a sector that requires people to work for free, nonprofits are replicating some of the very issues they are trying to tackle- racial and class based inequality, poverty eradication, and lack of community leadership.

Like most of my peers, I built my resume through a long series of unpaid volunteer jobs. In order to pay the bills and gain experience, I worked 2-3 part time and volunteer jobs in addition to my full time gig as a case manager. The unpaid work provided invaluable learning, as well as tons of burnout. I, however, was privileged to make this happen. I didn’t have children or family members to support. I didn’t live in an expensive city. I had very little college debt.

I know nonprofits have to make due with less. I know that money is an issue. I know that interns work for free. However, what happens when we only hire unpaid interns? The best talent flees to other sectors. And important people are priced out of careers where they can make critical impacts in their own communities.

What Can Nonprofits Do?

  • Tie internships to college- or even high school- credit.
  • Get creative. If you are hosting a summer camp, for example, offer free room and board to your interns. Look for spaces where you can support your interns.
  • Consider AmeriCorps volunteers or other established volunteer programs and grants.
  • Find a way to pay your interns! Make the case to the board. Put it in your fundraising goals, or your inclusiveness goals, or your strategic goals. Write it down and do it.

If you can’t do any of these things, make sure interns get real experience. I have seen many nonprofit interns spending summers stuffing envelops. Don’t let this happen. Allow them to develop a grant, write articles for newsletters, help run community groups- tangible skills that they can use on their resume.

Nonprofits should be examples of how businesses treat employees- including interns. Get those fiery, diverse, bright interns in your door. Do it well- they are the future of the sector.

Kerri Drumm at Purpose Aligned Consulting is passionate about talent management and recruiting the best and brightest to mission-driven work.

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After fifteen years in the nonprofit sector, Kerri Drumm founded Purpose Aligned Consulting in 2014. She has experience on three continents, in two languages and on literally thousands of mission-driven projects and programs.