Interns can be a god-send to any non-profit. They’re usually seeking an opportunity to learn and grow. Depending on their background, they may be as valuable as paid staff. I spent five semesters of college and grad school as an intern in non-profits. I know how it goes. So when I became a manager, I decided to pay it forward and host interns myself. As a social worker, internship, also called placement or field, is a vital part of your education, both in undergrad and grad school. In other words, I didn’t have a choice in the matter, which could be the case for the interns you may have in the future. I will say, you will notice a difference in the interns who are there for a grade and those who are there because they are actively seeking the opportunity on their own. In either case, if you choose to host interns, they will, or should, benefit your organization as you are helping them as well. You should expect it to be a mutually beneficial relationship. I’ve now managed several interns, ranging from high school level to grad school, on short-term and long-term bases, each with their own personalities and situations. So here are my tips, words of wisdom, and best and worst practices to consider before hosting your first intern.
- Interns usually have a dedicated schedule and will contribute more hours per week than regular volunteers
- Fresh eyes on new projects — they are learning this stuff right now!
- Give back by helping a student learn (maybe host a student from your alma mater like myself which helps you stay connected)
- Potential pipeline for future employees — we recently hired one of my interns full time
- There is additional time commitment to supervise an intern/s
- Could be a short term commitment — usually less than 1 year
- Interns first priority is usually their school work
These are just my top pros and cons. If you’re considering starting an internship program, I encourage you to write your own pro/con list based on your organization, location, preferences, etc.
Additionally, here are some best practices I’ve learned along the way to help you as you move forward.
- Make sure it is a mutually beneficial relationship between yourself (the supervisor), your organization, and the student. The student may have certain educational requirements or their own personal goals. Try to help them achieve those goals as well as any you have for them. The best way to maintain the intern’s passion for your mission is to assign them tasks that actually interest them.
- Maintain a regular schedule with the intern and hold them accountable as you would any other employee. You may find it best to set an informal contract with the intern to make sure they don’t ghost you mid-project. If you host an intern who is placed for a class, there will be a formal contract and you will complete an evaluation at the end of each semester.
- Provide weekly supervision to ensure the needs of the intern and the org are both being met. This is another way to maintain accountability. This will be helpful as well if your student is interning as part of a class and you need to evaluate them at the end of the semester. How will you do that if you’re not working with them weekly or at least maintaining supervision?
- Take the time to help the student learn. Anything can be a teachable moment. Remember, since they are likely not getting paid they are looking for value in other ways. Make it a valuable experience for you both.
- Set expectations for the rest of the staff. Is the intern assigned to one staff member/one department or can anyone assign tasks? Make sure this is clear to everyone involved.
- Find someone who is passionate about your mission. The same considerations apply as when hiring staff. Are you going to hire someone who smokes two packs a day if you work for the American Lung Association? Probably not. Find someone who is already aligned with your mission.
Pitfalls to avoid:
- The intern ends up being a burden rather than being helpful. The last thing you want is for hosting an intern to be more work on your plate. Ideally the intern will help lighten your load, not add to it. Take the time to plan ahead. Prepare projects and assignments for the intern. Take the time to train them as if they were regular employees to make things easier for you in the long run.
- The intern becomes the office “busy-worker” or “errand runner”. They are not there to be your personal assistant — so no coffee runs or dry cleaning pick ups. Keep in mind the number one reason the intern is there is to learn. Most of the time they are coming to you as a student. Always keep their learning goals in mind. What kind of experience will they get if they spend 20 hours a week licking envelopes and washing windows? Create meaningful experiences for the student based on their academic level and previous work experience.
- Everyone wants to use the intern. Set expectations for the rest of the staff as well. The last thing you want to hear is, “Oh, let’s give this project to the intern” or “Hey, can’t your intern do this?” The answer is No. If it’s not part of their learning goals or assignments don’t let others take advantage of you or your intern. I know that sharing is caring, but you don’t want the student to get overloaded by doing everyone else’s “busy work.” There have been a few times where people tried to pull a fast one and assigned tasks to my interns without my knowledge and then the work I assigned them was put aside. Help your interns prioritize.
- Overstepping boundaries. Your relationship with the interns should be kept professional. I’ve had interns who were younger than me, older than me, and the same age as me. Treat your interns as you would any other direct report. Avoid friendships or other dual-relationships when possible. This expectation should be extended to everyone on staff. In a previous role before I started hosting interns, one of the interns at that org took a particular interest in me to the point where he asked me out via email. That was a big red flag and the answer was a big no. Actually, I ignored him. Make sure the boundaries are clear to the intern as well.
Final tips to get started:
- First, think about why do you need an intern? How will they help? What will they do? Do you have the capacity to supervise an intern? Is there physical space where they can sit and work?
- Second, think about what value you will bring to the intern. Do you have an area of expertise you’re passionate about sharing with others? Or do you hate your job and wish to leave soon? Make sure you’re ready to take this on.
- Check-in with your leadership team. OK, I’m ready to go, but is my leadership team on board? If you’re not leadership, make sure to get their buy-in first.
- If you’ve thought about the above, you’re probably wondering where do I find interns? Reach out to your local universities and colleges. I started by reaching out to my Alma mater.
To summarize, hosting interns can be a very rewarding experience. They can add great value to your team. For me, I really needed the extra hands and my org didn’t have the budget to hire. So I created my own team and in return, I added value to the interns’ lives as well by helping them learn and prepare for the next steps in their careers. And hosting interns, may be the next step in your career or org as well.