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How to Recruit and Manage Nonprofit Interns

Learn how to leverage the power of interns at your organization

Many students and pre-professionals look to resume-boosting internships to provide valuable experiences before entering the workforce. A nonprofit internship can provide an especially enriching experience for interns.

But what’s in it for nonprofits?

Some organizations prefer to avoid internship programs. Managing volunteers is challenging enough, right?

We respectfully disagree! While managing volunteers and interns can pose challenges, investing in an internship program means investing in the present and future of your organization. In fact, offering internships goes hand in hand with your philosophy of giving back to the community.

With thoughtful processes in place, you can create a mutually beneficial internship program. This article will explore best practices for recruiting and managing nonprofit interns.

Let’s get started!

Article Contents:

About Nonprofit Interns

Before taking on interns, you’ll need to understand the difference between interns, employees, and volunteers. You also need to decide if interns are suitable for your organization.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a supervised, professional learning experience that offers meaningful work related to an individual’s study or career interest. Internships are typically entry-level positions. And interns are typically students, but not always. They can also be pre-professionals or professionals looking for experience in a particular field.

Internships are typically comprised of relevant projects that expand an intern’s knowledge or skills while making a genuine contribution to your organization.

Interns: Employee or Volunteer?

Are interns technically employees or volunteers? What is an intern, anyway? It’s important to distinguish these differences so that you manage your interns in accordance with U.S. labor laws. 

What’s the Difference Between Interns and Volunteers?

An internship is different than traditional volunteer opportunities. Internships take place over a fixed amount of time, often to fulfill an academic requirement or advance one’s career. On the other hand, people volunteer for many different reasons, and volunteer roles vary. Volunteers may support the operations of a nonprofit, like an intern, or they may help to deliver an organization’s programs and services to the community.

Whether you’re recruiting interns, employees, or volunteers, nonprofit organizations benefit from engaging people who are passionate about your cause (though this need not be a requirement).

Should Nonprofits Pay Interns?

Unlike employees, volunteers perform tasks voluntarily, meaning they generally do not receive income or benefits. Meanwhile, interns can either be paid or unpaid.

Note that unpaid internships are becoming increasingly uncommon and unfavorable. What’s more, the U.S. Department of Labor and some states are cracking down on unpaid internships. Learn how these restrictions may affect your nonprofit.

If you want to remain competitive, consider paying your interns. If you simply do not have the resources to pay interns, think about how you can leverage your volunteer program to help you fulfill your mission.

The national average hourly wage for interns was $20.76 in 2020.

Regardless of whether you decide to pay your interns or not, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Fair Labor Standards Act before implementing an internship program. Interns who receive compensation are considered employees and must be paid at least minimum wage.

This government form will help you classify your interns. And check out this article for more about internship program best (and legal) practices.

The Benefits of an Internship Program

Some nonprofits shy away from internship programs because they feel they don’t have the resources to manage interns effectively.

However, when managed well, an internship program can be a viable option for your nonprofit. That’s because great interns can:

  • Bring a fresh perspective and new approaches to projects
  • Offer tech and social media expertise
  • Assist with seasonal projects
  • Improve your organization’s visibility on campuses
  • Inspire productivity and enthusiasm
  • Fill knowledge and skill gaps

Whether you’re looking for a little extra help or your next superstar employee, we’ve put together some tips to help your nonprofit recruit the best and brightest interns.

How to Recruit Nonprofit Interns

Remember, students may need to solidify internships months in advance, so give yourself plenty of time to plan and recruit the right people for your organization.

Decide Where Interns Fit In

Make sure you understand where interns fit into your organization before taking them on. Gather your staff and brainstorm; think about what expertise you can offer, and designate staff who feel comfortable supervising interns.

Offer Meaningful, Focused Work

Make the most of your intern’s time by giving them more than busywork and coffee runs. It will require some trust, but by allowing interns to own a project or area of expertise you’ll create an internship fruitful internship experience. 

The best internships are project-based. Therefore, you’ll need a clear vision of upcoming projects that will keep your interns engaged and challenged.

Choose one or two core projects for your volunteers to work on during the course of the internship. A typical internship lasts around 10 weeks, but may be shorter or longer depending on your capacity and the needs of the intern.

Examples of Nonprofit Internship Projects:

Remember only to give your interns work that you’re planning on using or implementing. Their time, and yours, are valuable.

Connect with Campuses

More college and high school campuses are incorporating experiential learning or internship requirements into their curriculums. Nearly half of all interns are sourced from direct contacts at campus career centers.

Create a contact list of internship coordinators at high schools, colleges, and universities in your community.

Reach out to the people on your list, and be sure to ask questions like these:

  • Does the campus require internships for credit?
  • What should students get out of the experience?
  • How can your nonprofit be added to the campus’s internship locations database?
  • What are the best ways to inform students about position openings?


Employ Social Media

Reach students where you’ll find them the most—online! Use your organization’s social media platforms for advertising your internship program.

Synchronize your outreach schedule with the school year so that your campaign is relevant to students. Many will begin sourcing for-credit internships during the summer months, so run a campaign in June to get them thinking—and excited—about your organization!

If you set up a table at a campus job fair, include your social media handles so that students can keep in touch. (A business card or QR code that features a call to action like “Follow us!” will do the trick.)

Communicate the Benefits

Whether you’re meeting prospective interns at a job fair or posting about your program on social media, you’ll want to communicate the advantages of working for your organization.

Decide what types of benefits your nonprofit can offer, and let prospective interns and internship coordinators know what makes your program special.

Developing clear answers to questions like these will help you relay the types of information students and their advisors want to know:

  • Why will an internship at your program be a rewarding learning experience?
  • What expertise can your organization offer?
  • What kinds of projects will your interns be involved in?
  • What non-financial benefits is your organization prepared to offer?


Set Expectations

During the interview process, you’ll find out what’s important to interns and which skills they want to address. You’ll need to balance their goals with your organization’s needs and expectations.

Discuss what the candidate hopes to get out of the internship. Interns may want to focus on pursuing their passions, honing soft or hard skills, or exploring the elements of a successful volunteer program, for example.

Then, communicate expectations. Include big picture items as well as the day-to-day details of what the internship entails. Address these questions when recruiting your nonprofit interns:

  • How many hours per week is the intern required to work?
  • Is the intern expected to work in the office or remotely?
  • What is the compensation they will receive?
  • Who will supervise the intern? To whom can the intern approach with questions and concerns about the internship?
  • What will supervision look like at your organization?


Be Flexible

If you’re working with students, they’re probably balancing exams and other school activities in addition to their internship work.

Offer a realistic schedule that works for students. Summer internships are often full-time, while fall and spring internships are typically part-time, working around typical academic schedules.

Your flexibility will be worth the effort if it results in a better experience for your intern. Plus, their respective campuses are more likely to work with you again!

Virtual Internships

Among employers who held an internship during the summer of 2020, approximately 72% did so virtually. While we’re living in unprecedented times, many businesses and organizations alike are offering virtual internships indefinitely.

While virtual internships provide flexibility, there are also inherent limitations to working strictly online. Fortunately, virtual internship best practices like these can help you navigate this new reality.

Best Practices for Managing Nonprofit Interns

Developing a thoughtful framework for managing your nonprofit interns is critical to the success of your internship program. Here are our top tips for managing nonprofit interns:

Train for Success

Three out of four respondents in this survey felt their internship had a significantly positive impact on their collaboration and communication skills. Help interns develop these skills and many more by training them for success.

Proper training ensures your interns feel prepared and empowered. While training takes time initially, you’ll save time in the long run.

Start broad by orienting interns with your organization. Cover your mission, introduce your programs and the community you serve, and discuss how their role fits into the larger scope of the organization.

Then, spend a few days delving into more detailed role-specific training. What tools will they be using to complete the job? What hard skills will they need to hone to complete their project?

Remember that training is an ongoing process, and many individuals learn best by trying out the task for themselves. Give interns a chance to learn in practice.

Nonprofit Intern Training Checklist:

  • Organization Mission and Vision
  • Cause, Program, and Clients
  • Staff Introduction
  • Social Media Policy
  • Email and Communication Policies and Best Practices
  • Specific Task Training


Supervise, Respect, Engage

The quality of supervision and mentoring is critical to the success of an internship.

Your job isn’t finished once interns are trained. Internships are supervised experiences. That means you’ll need to continuously check in to offer additional training, and discuss progress and barriers.

Remember, you have the opportunity to mentor the next generation of thinkers. An effective supervisor offers consistent feedback, encouragement, and opportunity for revision.

Track Their Progress

Part of successful supervision is helping interns track their progress. Invite interns to set goals and develop metrics—both qualitative and quantitative—for measuring these goals.

You’ll want to track these metrics throughout the internship. Set up a check-in or review process to deliver timely feedback throughout the experience and give your interns the chance to improve. Assess and reassess workload and tasks.

Supervisors should not only help interns identify goals, but they should also encourage interns to reflect upon their own progress, including successes and areas for improvement.  

Help Forge Connections

Internships are a great way to make industry connections. Help forge these connections by introducing interns to other community partners and key players. Invite interns to sit in on planning sessions, attend conferences and events, and participate in social gatherings.

Many will apply to your program because they’re passionate about the causes your organization addresses. So keep your eager interns engaged by inviting them to share their voices and ideas not just with their supervisor, but also with other stakeholders.

Write Great Recommendations

You may not be able to offer every intern a full-time position after the experience is over. However, you can write great recommendations to help your best and brightest get the job they deserve. Recommendations are a major selling point for many internships, so if you offer recommendations as an incentive, it’s important to deliver on your word.

Encourage Reflection

Reflection is an important habit to practice in all areas of life. Before interns head out the door, have them synthesize their experience in writing. It will help them to review accomplishments, challenges, and work produced during their time with your organization.

Ask interns about what they loved and what could be improved about their experience. This information will serve as valuable feedback to help improve your internship program going forward.

In an increasingly competitive job market, internships can give students and pre-professionals the boost they need to secure meaningful work. As you incorporate interns into your organization, you’ll be able to take on new projects and uphold your mission: to serve those in your community.

Additional Resources

Nonprofit Social Media Strategy: How to Implement a Plan and Measure Success

The Top Nonprofit Trends for 2022

Grant Writing: 10 Effective Strategies for Nonprofits

Capacity Building: Your Nonprofit and Volunteer Management Toolkit

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