Four lessons on establishing an internship program

Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

This post was originally published on Forbes Nonprofit Council.

Summer is a time of year that often brings promises of vacation in sunny climates and a break from routines. That is unless you are a college student struggling to find the elusive professional development requirement, a.k.a. an internship. Then the summer probably looks very different than before; this includes differences as minor as adjusting to early working hours and as significant as navigating the realities of office politics and culture.

In 2020, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy hired its first intern, whom we paid, and one of her primary tasks was to research and create our future internship program. At that time, one of the central recommendations she made was to ensure “a valuable intern experience.”

This year, my eldest, who is in business school, is navigating his first professional internship. And thus, adjusting to his different needs as he develops, our interactions now shift with me in the role of performance coach as well as mom. And truth be told, it is a wonder to see the current working environment through his eyes.

I have gleaned a few learnings:

1. Pay your intern.
Nonprofits typically aim to promote or advocate for a common social cause. Many nonprofit organizations have also made public statements regarding their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Offering unpaid internships reinforces privilege, as working for free is an option available only to the fortunate few. Additionally, by choosing not to pay your interns, you are sending a message to their colleagues and future employers that their effort is not valued. The first step to showing you respect your intern’s contribution is paying them a living wage. The result is likely to be happier interns and advancement of your mission, values and project goals.

2. Provide a warm welcome.
The saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Onboarding is challenging, and overworked human resource departments can often deprioritize younger professionals, especially transitory or part-time staff. Finding ways to publicly demonstrate that you value your intern provides a warm welcome and combats the long-held bias that an intern’s value is to take on all the menial tasks others no longer wish to do. The warmth and sincerity of the welcome—whether it be a public welcome email, ensuring a prepared space for them to work, or taking them to lunch on their first day—can go a long way toward engendering their connection to your mission and culture.

3. Mentor for the intern’s future.
It is crucial to connect with your interns—to understand who they are, including their dreams and desires. At CDP, any request for an intern hire includes three components: what they will do, funding for the position and who will act as their mentor. The mentor holds responsibility for the intern’s learning experience through understanding the intern’s professional goals and their connection to assigned tasks, offering regular constructive and future-focused feedback, publicly celebrating successes, encouraging their exploration of ideas and creating networking opportunities. Much more than a supervisor, a mentor is a guide for interns’ future careers.

4. Listen to learn.
Secondary only to time, I’ve found a successful internship experience requires an organizational culture of openness. Accessibility to leadership and career staff is invaluable to an intern’s learning. And it has an incredible residual effect in allowing you to see your organization, mission and culture differently. As nonprofits, we often espouse values of collectiveness, respect and learning. For example, at CDP, we aim to create an inclusive work environment, where employees can be open and receptive to individual expression, honest constructive feedback and uncomfortable conversations. Leaders should have no caveats on to whom we will listen.

The days when interns were viewed as an extra body to which organizational leadership needed to give little thought and even less time are gone. The next generation of workers expects more, and it is upon us to meet and welcome this expectation.